[OUTLOOK]Prime minister's role: 'What if?'

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[OUTLOOK]Prime minister's role: 'What if?'

There is a heated debate between the ruling and opposition parties and in the media over the appointment of the new prime minister who also happens to be a woman. As important as the prime minister's ethical character and government administration skills are, an even more fundamental criterion to be considered is that the prime minister must be able to maintain control over the administration in a national crisis.

Until now, the office of the prime minister has been that of a minor and supporting one that oversees only the peripheral affairs of the state while the president takes over the supervision of the central issues such as the economy and the national security. In fact, the prime minister has often been referred to as a "protocol premier."

Nevertheless, the prime minister, as ordered by the Korean Constitution, holds the duty of acting-president in case of an accident occurring that causes the president to be unable to carry out his or her duties.

This is what we must keep in mind as this country prepares to get a new prime minister. We have always shied away from thinking that our president might be immobilized. Thinking that way is a big mistake. We obtain life or fire insurance in case of an unexpected event. Thus, it makes sense to prepare for an emergency that might concern the life and safety of the entire nation, an emergency that is mentioned in the constitution.

The role of the prime minister in Korea is more or less that of the vice president in the United States. One of the most important abilities of the U.S. vice president is that Americans look for him or her to step in for the president in case of an emergency. In the presidential election of 1984, when Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate, chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, much of the public wondered this: If Mr. Mondale wins, what will Mrs. Ferraro do if she has to take his place?

It is not the president's age or health that should be the issue in question when we discuss the possibility of an emergency absence. Those factors should have been sufficiently discussed when the people initially chose to elect the president. The focus of the discussion should be on the prime minister's administrative abilities in the case of this "What if?"

It is also wrong to distort the discussion of Ms. Chang's appointment as that of whether a woman has the ability to act as the head of the state and supreme commander. History has shown us plenty of female leaders who excelled in their jobs, such as Queen Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia, Indira Ghandi of India and more contemporarily, Britain's Margaret Thatcher.

What we need to discuss is whether the prime ministerial candidate has what it takes to protect the security of our country and the lives and property of our people in the extremely theoretical situation of the emergency absence of the president that is presented in the constitution.

What will happen if a security or economic crisis occurred when the prime minister was acting as the president, a situation that is already a crisis in itself? As we've experienced with our financial crisis a few years ago, overcoming crises can require great perseverance and will.

Moreover, a security crisis is different from an economic one. A security crisis is more urgent and the nature of the problem requires keeping extreme secrecy, meaning the president as the supreme commander will have to give out orders on the spot ultimately based on his or her judgments without outside consultation.

As a civilian commander, he or she would face differences of opinion with the professional military. Not only must a president have a firm opinion of the state of the country and its security, but a basic knowledge and good judgment skills of military affairs would also be required of the president.

The reason we should evaluate how Ms. Chang fares on this question is, albeit she is an exceptional leader in the women's movement, she has no experience in public administration involving security affairs. There is also little evidence of her control ability as the supreme commander of the nation.

Whether she has the ability or not despite the lack of experience is a question that the public must find out, and that is why it is important to have sufficient discussions on these points at the National Assembly hearing, and a decision must be made with the public's participation.

This is not about Ms. Chang alone. These kinds of public discussions should have preceded the appointment of a prime minister with a similar professional background. Now is the time when we must start making sure that they do.


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The writer is a former minister of foreign affairs and trade.

by Yoo Jong-ha

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