CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 19 August 2017

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Over the moon with new president

SEOUL (UCAN): Seoul is over the moon with what was termed a landslide victory for presidential candidate Moon Jae-in, from the Democratic Party of Korea.
 
Moon gleaned 41 per cent of the popular vote, while his nearest rival, the conservative Hong Jun-pyo, could only muster 24 per cent and what was described as the centrist candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, just 21 per cent.
 
Moon succeeds the disgraced Park Gyuen-hye, who was impeached in February and is currently being held in detention awaiting trial on corruption charges and, in a rather conciliatory move, Moon, a former human rights lawyer, has said he will skip a lavish inauguration ceremony and start work straight away.
 
The Republic of Korea is on a bit of a high, as the expectation of a more accountable governmental system is strong. Moon has vowed not to use his office at the presidential residence, the Blue House, but instead to work out of the Central Government Offices.
 
An even more popular pledge is his promise to end the use of the presidential pardon for company executives and politicians found guilty of corruption, dashing any hope Park may have had of an easy get away.
 
Among the challenges facing Moon is an economy, which although it is listed as the 12th largest is the world, is recognised as being highly fragile.
 
Those who have worked closely with the Moon campaign say that he will be careful not to damage the slight economic recovery that has been evident over the past six months, with economic data showing exports on the up.
 
But as the son of immigrants from North Korea, his view across the Demilitarised Zone is less aggressive than his predecessors, giving hope to many that he may be able to make some progress with the recalcitrant Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang.
 
Recent tensions have skyrocketed due to the attempts by Pyongyang to develop a nuclear-armed ballistic missile capable of hitting the mainland of the United States of America, so the search for a diplomatic solution probably played a decisive role in the election result.
 
Moon is on record as saying he is going to make friendlier relations with the North a high priority. This includes visits to China, Tokyo, Washington and even Pyongyang, if it can be organised, as a matter of priority to discuss strategies over North Korea.
 
He has consistently preached a non-aggressive approach to seeking resolutions with South Korea’s unstable, totalitarian neighbour right throughout his political career.
 
But in Church circles, much interest centres on the fact that Moon is a Catholic and, depending on how you count them, is either the nation’s second or third Catholic president this century.
 
Kim Dae-jung, who left office in 2003 was a high profile Catholic opposition leader from the bad old days of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship. He was part of the reawakening of human rights in the Church, when Stephen Kim Sou-hwan became a centre of resistance to the excesses of the martial law regime.
 
Park’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, who left the Blue house in disgrace in February, had been baptised, but laid no further claim to her Catholicity. So depending on how you count them, Moon is number two or three.
 
But Christian presidents are no strangers to South Korea. Its founding president in 1948, Syngman Rhee, was a Christian, having been baptised into the Methodist Church as a young man in 1895.
 
Known as an iron-fisted ruler, he remained at the top until he was forced out of office in 1960 by an ever-rising tide of discontent among the people. He retired to Hawaii.
 
Moon is strongly Catholic and is a visible realisation of the position of belonging that the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, has taken on in Korean society.
 
The exponential growth in Protestant and Catholic populations makes South Korea unique in the Asian region.
 
Social scientists attribute the recent sharp increase mostly to converts among middle-aged mothers whose children have grown up and left home. Not seeking another career in this next phase of their lives, they have discovered community and a life purpose through the Church.
 
Catholic numbers initially grew slowly in South Korea, from a low base of 170,000 in 1961 to 450,000 by 1968. But over the last four decades growth has been exponential, from 800,000 in 1980 to over five million today.
 
The Church in Korea is unique too, as it was established and developed by lay people and it was many years before a stable body of clergy was established.
 
Long before Vatican II and the 1965 Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, the concept was a fact in Korea.
 
This lay-founded Church has now come a long way on the political stage. Moon stood out from the other candidates as a true fighter for the vulnerable in Korean society, reflecting his early career as a lawyer in Busan when he focussed on human and civil rights issues.
 
The South Korean economy currently faces a series of problems in the job market, such as high youth unemployment, long working hours, a large wage gap between small firms and conglomerates, as well as discrimination against irregular workers.
 
The prospect of a jobless future is real and may well have motivated the younger generation to visit the election booths May 9.
 
Job creation is a top priority in Moon’s campaign pledges. He has promised a two-pronged approach to tackle unemployment; one for middle-aged workers and the other for young people.
 
In a televised debate, Moon promised to create 810,000 jobs in the public sector alone. He aims to achieve this by spending 21 trillion won (around $1.21 trillion) in government money over the next five years.
 
Meanwhile, Park steadfastly denies the charges made against her, but her scarred legacy played a significant role in the election, as a true anti-Park sentiment emerged, especially among older Catholics.
 
A former South Korean ambassador to the Vatican told UCAN that Moon won his battle on the ground during the political campaign. “More than anything, in matters like national security he has definitely given more assurances than the other candidates and that paid off,” the former ambassador said.
 
While the opposition labelled Moon as pro-North Korea, the former diplomat said that in the whole of South Korea there is no one who is pro-North Korea.
 
“South Koreans wish not to antagonise their neighbour,” he said. “They want to find peaceful solutions and that is also one reason why Moon got a lot of young people’s support, because the young people have more to lose from any deterioration of the political relations between the two countries.”
 
He added that the people wanted change and Moon looked more likely to deliver, as he is more experienced and closer to social problems and relative issues.
 
But the new president faces working with a fractured parliament where his Democratic Party holds only 40 per cent of the single-chamber, 299-seat assembly, making coalitions essential to government.

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