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Scandals rock Moon's bid to clean up South Korea politics

Allegations against allies slow reforms, push president to turn up heat on Japan

Scandals are weakening South Korean President Moon Jae-in's economic and political agendas.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in came to office in 2017 on a pledge to clean up politics after his predecessor was brought down by a massive corruption scandal. But now he's facing a slew of allegations that could potentially threaten his own presidency.

Kim Kyung-soo, the public relations manager of Moon's presidential campaign, was sentenced late last month to two and a half years in prison for using an influential blogger to manipulate public opinion on social media. Kim, who is governor of South Gyeongsang Province, allowed the blogger to use a computer program that created fake "likes" and post comments favorable to Moon on some 70,000 news stories.

To compound matters for Moon and his Democratic Party, Kim was seen a potential candidate for the 2022 presidential election.

In another blow, a close friend of Moon's wife has been mired in a real estate property scandal. Sohn Hye-won, a lawmaker, is accused of buying about 10 old houses under relatives' names in the southwestern port city of Mokpo. While she argues that the purchases were to help preserve the district's history under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), she is suspected of abusing her power.

Her case can be compared to former President Park Geun-hye's lifelong friend, Choi Soon-sil. Choi is now serving 20 years for crimes including using her ties with Park to pressure conglomerates to donate millions of dollars to two of her foundations. Park is serving a 25-year prison sentence.

The scandals are weakening Moon's economic and political agendas, as well as empowering opposition parties, with the nation's main conservative force, the Liberal Korea Party, set to elect a new leader on Feb 27.

Analysts say the more criticism he faces at home, the more the president will be tempted to turn the heat up on Japan.

"It will be more difficult for Moon to argue that he is dedicated to rooting out the collusive behavior and venality in politics and business that contributed to Park's demise," said Scott Seaman, a director at Eurasia Group. "The more threatened Moon feels at home, the more likely he is to lash out at Japan, aggravating tensions that are already straining bilateral diplomatic, security and economic ties."

The U.S. allies have been at loggerheads over South Korean court rulings that Japanese companies are liable to pay compensation to Koreans forced to work for them under colonial rule. Tokyo says the issue was resolved in a 1965 treaty.

In January, Moon demanded that Japan act more humbly about its 35 years of colonial rule, saying that "it is not a wise attitude for Japanese politicians and leaders to politicize and make a noise out of this issue."

Moon's approval rating stood at 47% in a Gallup Korea poll taken in the fifth week of January. They have struggled to rebound past 50% having slipped from around 65% in October.

Seeing the negative sentiment surrounding him, the president is paying more attention to the economy -- which analysts say is his weak spot. Moon invited seven venture leaders, including Naver founder Lee Hae-jin, to the Blue House last week, and has been conciliatory toward business leaders who have criticized the administration's labor-friendly policies.

He also continues to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula, drawing a rosy picture of the second summit between the U.S. and North Korea scheduled for Feb. 27-28 in Hanoi. While he sees the North becoming a growth engine for the South, analysts are less optimistic.

"Even in a scenario where talks are productive, we see limited economic implications for South Korea in the short term," said Kim Jin-wook, an economist at Citibank. "Materialization of infrastructure investment into the North would take at least several years, and would be vulnerable to any setbacks in future talks."

Separately, a Liberal Korea Party lawmaker said two weeks ago that Moon's daughter moved to an unspecified Southeast Asian country, speculating that the president's son-in-law had either embezzled corporate funds from a gaming company or the family was unhappy with the country's education system. The presidential Blue House admitted they had moved overseas but denied the allegations.

Earlier this month, former South Chungcheong Province Governor Ahn Hee-jung was sentenced to three and half years in prison for raping his secretary. Ahn had competed with Moon in the Democratic Party primary race and was regarded as a possible runner in the next presidential election.

Also, a former Supreme Court chief justice was indicted Monday on charges that he abused his authority to influence trials as a political tool to lobby the previous government. Yang Sung-tae is alleged to have misused his position to lobby the office of then President Park for the establishment of a new appeals court.

He is also accused of delaying top-court rulings on controversial wartime forced labor cases involving Japanese companies, at a time when the Park administration was seeking friendly ties with Japan.

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