[VIEWPOINT]The peril of relying on ‘yes-men’The saying, “When a kingdom or country falls, there always appear villainous retainers,” is not true. Treacherous subjects exist at all times, but they only become a problem and cause a crisis when society loses the ability to adequately control their power.
We can easily find people equivalent to the villainous retainers under despotic monarchs in modern society.
From civil organizations, alumni associations and companies on a small scale, to governments on a larger scale, in every organization with a boss, there exists someone who is like a villainous retainer.
In previous Korean governments, it was near the end of administrations that the treacherous subjects became powerful.
When the misrule of presidents accumulates, their approval rate plummets and the president’s grievances and loneliness increase. This provides a fertile ground for a villainous retainer to plant his seeds.
During the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong of the Tang Dynasty, Prime Minister Han Hyu was a man of integrity who dared to tell the emperor his faults to his face without hesitation.
Although Emperor Xuan felt uncomfortable when this happened, when someone asked, “Why don’t you get rid of Han Hyu?” he replied, “Because of him, I don’t feel happy everyday and get skinny from lack of sleep, but the country is flourishing instead.”
However, even Emperor Xuan appointed villainous retainers to positions of trust towards the end of his reign, and brought the An Lushan rebellion on himself, ultimately losing his throne. (“The Story of Villainous Retainers,” The People’s Publishing Co. of China, 1991).
The second son of former President Kim Young-sam, Kim Hyun-chul, appeared as a behind the scenes strongman who was controlling state affair, at the end of 1993, when the government was in trouble over the issue of opening the rice market.
One witness said, “There was a cabinet reshuffle in December and the reshuffle of vice-ministers was about to be announced. Mr. Kim came to the office of presidential secretariat on Sunday. He came to intervene in the reshuffle of vice-ministers.”
After that, the younger Mr. Kim frequently called the presidential chief of staff, Park Kwan-yong, to a safe house near the Blue House. When the chief of staff complained about the situation, Kim Young-sam had him replaced immediately.
This incident made the younger Mr. Kim the No. 2 strongman in the blink of an eye. Nobody reported the son Kim’s problems to the president.
A senior presidential secretary received the younger Mr. Kim’s phone calls while standing at attention. A leading ruling party assemblyman knelt on his knees and offered him a drink, calling him “Your Highness.”
In compensation for all these absurdities, the elder Mr. Kim had to witness his son being arrested during his time in office, and had the disgrace of being abandoned by the ruling party.
This is an example that shows what can happen when a boss does not listen to the advice of people around him.
The most powerful man during the days of former President Kim Dae-jung was Park Jie-won. Mr. Kim loved Mr. Park for his diligence and rare ability to read the thoughts of the president. Mr. Park kept his promise to “play the role of Chang Se-dong [the right hand man of Chun Doo Hwan] in the Chun administration” to the end.
However, even Mr. Park showed a strange attitude when Mr. Kim started to have problems in the beginning of 2002 because of his sons’ scandalous behavior. He even leaked some weaknesses of the Kim government to journalists. A few months after that, Mr. Park was appointed as the presidential chief of staff.
Perhaps he drove President Kim, who was already in a lot of trouble, into a corner and made him come to the conclusion that “Park Jie-won is the only person I can trust and depend on.”
From this, we can observe that it isn’t easy to tell the difference between good advisors and bad counselors.
Any boss will say a subordinate that puts his neck on the line to say “no” is quite a burden. Only a bad counselor, “who tells his boss that he is doing things fairly and squarely when he is actually working from personal greed, who praises the boss when he boldly pursues something and who doesn’t make things awkward by pointing out faults when the boss thinks he has done right” is considered to be a comforting counselor. Such a counselor will talk comfortingly to the boss when he is in trouble and help the boss feel good about things. In this respect, a bad counselor is a “necessary evil.”
However, a bad counselor’s role should stop at relieving the stress caused by what the good advisor tells the boss. If a bad counselor plays a leading role in state or business affairs, the government or organization will be ruined.
If President Roh Moo-hyun, who has about a year and a half left in office, doesn’t want to repeat the errors of his predecessors, he needs to look around himself carefully. If he is surrounded by people who always say sweet things and try never to say anything bad, that is a sign that things have already gone bad.
Right now, the Blue House is full of people who respond immediately to criticisms of “code appointments and revolving door personnel management” with the rationalization that “personnel appointments are the constitutional right of the president.”
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Du-woo