[OUTLOOK]What Really Matters in the Ahn Fiasco

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[OUTLOOK]What Really Matters in the Ahn Fiasco

The fiasco regarding former Justice Minister Ahn Dong-su tells us that the Kim Dae-jung administration's management is facing a crisis. President Kim replaced the justice minister in order to appoint a person he had in mind to be a prosecutor general with real power. However, he had to sack the newly appointed justice minister 43 hours after he got sworn in, due to questions about his integrity. How would people from other countries look at this? It is nothing less than a national shame.

Still, why are we beating about the bush? What stops us from looking directly into the essence of the matter? Why do we hesitate to identify the real problem? To my mind the incident raises three major problems.

First, the entire responsibility for the fiasco should go to no one but the president himself. Some-body is blaming the presidential secretaries, others blame an unofficial advisory team of political heavyweights. Many people say that the government has problems in its personnel pool and in the way it screens and hires people for senior positions. Some publicly asked who recommended Mr. Ahn.

No matter who recommended him, the person who made the final decision and named Mr. Ahn should be responsible for the mishap. It is also Kim Dae-jung's responsibility if his secretaries have such dull, undiscerning eyes. The president once said when troubles erupted over medical reform, " I have been fooled twice by them." Well, who hired them? We cannot respect a president who is easily deceived. And even if he was really taken in by subordinates, he should not have said so publicly.

One of the presidential secretaries reportedly was surprised to learn the president's choice. "Huh?" he is quoted. "Did you say Ahn Dong-su?" It seems at least one presidential secretary thought Mr. Ahn was not right for the position. Why was his opinion not taken into consideration?

Unofficial advisory team? President Kim is also responsible for that. Why is he keeping, using and empowering such a team?

Many people have said unsavory things about the administration's personnel policies. There are even subdued remarks that some undisclosed reason must be behind Mr. Ahn's appointment as justice minister. There is no practical way to make the president bear the responsibility for his errors. But we cannot improve or correct things by criticizing only subordinates when in fact responsibility is in the hands of the president. We have taken for granted a kind of presidential infallibility in Korea. Such a political climate is a product of authoritarian rule by former presidents who behaved in an imperial way. We should be able to break from the political culture of the past and say the president is wrong when he does something wrong. That is the way to save the president and the presidential system.

One other thing we have to think about in regards to the Ahn matter is the political neutrality of the prosecution. Why did the ruling camp try to empower the prosecutor general, even by removing the justice minister without particular reasons? If political neutrality was expected of the prosecutor, there was no need to appoint "a trusted person from the hometown." The tragedy of Mr. Ahn apparently started from the desire to have the prosecution friendly to the president. We need a serious discussion of prosecutorial neutrality, and this is our opportunity.

Our political climate that rewards flattery and blind loyalty is another serious problem highlighted by this incident. A while ago a representative said, "Like the salmon, which in order to complete its once-in-a-lifetime sacred mission swims upstream and ends its life, I have made up my mind to devote myself, heart and soul, to your cause, Mr. President." This time Ahn's pledges read "stake my life to do my utmost," and "thanks for this immense grace and favor."

The secretary general of the ruling party said, "It is natural that people pledge loyalty to the president, head of state." Is South Korea a monarchy, or is it a republic? Do all the people close to the president think and act like that? Under the circumstances who would dare to say what he has to say? Even the most capable secretary can hardly oppose the president. The inevitable result is that we endure a self-righteous, single-handed operation, with personal rule by the president. We can no longer tolerate this political climate encouraging flattery.

If we see things this way, the current political disturbance in the ruling party cannot be waited out or calmed down by assuaging junior lawmakers of the Millennium Democratic Party. If the essential matters I have raised are not fully confronted, problems cannot help but linger. This is certainly a hardship to the ruling camp, but it could be a tonic, albeit bitter. It gives the president a valuable chance to think about the essential matters - including the culture of flattery, the political neutrality of prosecutors and a president's judgment and responsibility.

The ruling camp should get beyond flimsy justifications such as blaming Mr. Ahn's 20-year old clerk. It should sincerely take its medicine and bend its efforts to solve the essential problems.


The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Song Chin-hyok

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