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[OUTLOOK]Sunday’s debate was a bad idea

Mar 13,2003
Recently, the president and a group of prosecutors debated on television. Does this mean that our democracy has matured and that a political culture of productive conversation and debate has finally begun? I couldn’t help watching the debate with mixed emotions. On one hand, I admired the fearlessness of the young prosecutors and felt proud that there was a future for our democracy and the prosecution. But I also realized the more admirable these prosecutors looked, the more damaging it was for the office of the president, the symbol of the nation that we should all hold in respect.
A proper country would have more than one value to uphold. It would uphold the value of democracy while at the same time defend its dignity as a country. The presidential office is the symbol and center of our country. If the dignity of the office is damaged in our efforts to establish democracy, it would mean the failure of authority as a system to unite society in solidarity. This is not to say that a president should be authoritarian. A president, however, should maintain his dignity. It is not wrong for the president to hold debates. But not all debates are appropriate for the office of the president.
The office of the president is a neutral one. It is desirable for the president to listen to the opinions of various people to form an accurate judgment before making final decisions. The recent televised debate did not reflect well the image of the president, because he came on as an interested party. The president is not the speaker for a particular force in society. He is the symbolic representative of all people. He should not be representing sides in debates. The office of the president is such that it should also absorb the statements of the young prosecutors. This debate would have looked better had the president, as a neutral observer, let it unfold between the justice minister and the prosecutors before making his decision.
The presidential office is the final authority in all government decisions. Had the debate been held to hear what the junior prosecutors had to say, it would have been only right to hear them through the minister or responsible executive prosecutors. Say the debate with the president, the final line of decision, did not solve the problem. Who shall solve it now?
There is a job for the president and there is a job for the head of a department. Should the president skip the intermediary steps, as he did this time, all those government ranks would be useless. Every time a problem arose, the president would have to solve it himself.
Granted that the problem of the prosecutors’ office was an urgent one that required the direct attention of the president, it was wrong to publicize the issue; that has left the president open to attack. It looked awkward for the president to be arguing with young prosecutors and using inappropriate language at times during the debate. It is regrettable that the president felt he needed to hold this debate even at the cost of such wounds.
Taking all these points into account, there was no merit in holding the debate. So why did Mr. Roh do it? It can only be seen as a sort of culture that the new components of the government have brought with them. These new government officials are used to the culture of debate, a fact which the president even boasts of. Taken in a positive light, that is a method of democracy. On the negative side, it is an ideologically oriented method aiming at a single, preordained goal. The president might have wanted this debate televised ― despite the lack of any positive effects from televising it ― because he wanted to inform the people of his intentions and to ask them for their support.
This can make people wonder whether the debate was not for a solution but for mobilizing public pressure on the prosecutors. This is where the biggest concern lies. Mobilizing the masses is a far cry from a democratic solution to a problem. Raw interaction between a leader and the masses always holds the danger of developing into a trans-constitutional form of rule. Debates of such kind could hinder, rather than encourage, democracy.
The president’s place is not to debate but to make lonely decisions. Mr. Roh must resist the temptation to woo audiences with his debating skills as he did before he entered mainstream politics. Good decisions, not words, are needed to lead this country.

* The writer is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Moon Chang-keuk


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