[OUTLOOK]Suffering from foot in mouthChyung Dai-chul, head of President-elect Roh Moo-hyun's delegation to the United States, said during the Millennium Democratic Party presidential primary in April last year that if Mr. Roh becomes the party's nominee, the party's senior leaders should mold him into a predictable and stable person. Mr. Chyung also said Mr. Roh was unlike anyone else in that it is hard to predict what he would do next. "My heart sinks when I see newspaper headlines every morning," Mr. Chyung said.
A friend of Mr. Roh who met with a JoongAng Ilbo reporter recently said, "I told him not to make controversial remarks."
Mr. Roh frequently baffles people and tends to cause controversy. During a recent chat with the public, Mr. Roh reportedly said what amounts to 16,000 Korean letters or 80 pages of standard Korean writing paper. He said 10,000 letters the next day in Gwangju. This is a lot.
It is not necessarily a bad thing that a leader expresses his opinion in detail. However, what Mr. Roh said during the two months after his election bred misunderstandings, confusion and dissatisfaction. Sometimes people wonder whether what Mr. Roh said is in our national interest. At times we see good intention in his words but at other times we see reckless expressions, statements that apparently did not go through much review and things that he just does not know.
The "destruction of family" statement is a prime example. Mr. Roh said previously that asking for favors during the appointment process for government officials would destroy families because it would bring on tax inquiries and other investigations into the assets of the candidate's extended family. It was a stern warning with a good cause. However, only the most imperial president can conduct tax and other investigations at will.
Mr. Roh's statement that he would levy all-inclusive inheritance and gift taxes even if doing so involves revising current interpretation of the constitution is another example. The president cannot change legal interpretations.
The area where careful statements are particularly needed is diplomacy and national security. Mr. Roh has caused a sizable amount of controversy in this area also. When he visited the military headquarters in Daejeon late last year, he talked about a possible war on the Korean Peninsula and the withdrawal of U.S. troops. It was inappropriate of the incoming president to mention such thorny issues when the security atmosphere is extremely sensitive. For the president-elect to openly state that South Korea should prepare for the withdrawal of U.S. troops could lead some to believe that the incoming administration regards such a withdrawal as a fact waiting to happen.
Mr. Roh's televised discussion with the public on January 18 resulted in an international misunderstanding. "Around the time when I was elected, hawks within the Bush administration talked about the possibilities of war and attack against the United States," Mr. Roh said during the show. The Associat-ed Press then quoted him as saying, "Senior U.S. officials talked about the possibility of war against North Korea last month, according to South Korea's president-elect." The AP report sounded as if the United States government discussed war plans against North Korea in secret. Mr. Roh's spokesman had to clarify the problem.
Mr. Roh once again mentioned war last week. "It's better to live even under hardship than for all of us to die. We should differ from the United States if need be. We should make a resolute decision even if it means tough times for our economy."
A national leader customarily refrains from making remarks related to diplomacy and national security based on some assumption about the future. In particular, predicting the future based on a worst case scenario could give the wrong impression to the other side. Such a remark could later constrain the leader himself.
The North Korean nuclear crisis is already serious enough. Is it appropriate for Mr. Roh to speak at this stage of a "resolute decision" and "better than all of us dying?" Or would it be better for him to calm the agitation and quietly narrow the gap between his government and the United States? Is it appropriate for Mr. Roh to speak so openly on these issues at all?
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Song Chin-hyok