[Viewpoint] Two months of unnecessary agonyPrime Minister Chung Un-chan held a press conference on Thursday and made public his intention to resign. President Lee Myung-bak will accept his resignation. The press conference came two months after he had expressed his intention to step down to Lee in the aftermath of the June 2 local election defeat of the Grand National Party. Over those two months, Chung was a really lamentable sight.
He went to the Prime Minister’s office every morning, hosted meetings and attended events, but his dignity as the Prime Minister has long since faded. Rumors spread fast that he would soon be replaced, and it was difficult for Chung to win respect as it was unclear whether he would be keeping the post or not.
After the government’s bills to revise the Sejong City plan were officially rejected at the National Assembly, Chung said he would “assume responsibility.” It was received as the expression of his intent to resign. But that was it. There was no clear clarification as to whether President Lee had dissuaded him or accepted his resignation. Amid this confusion, some Blue House officials said Chung would soon be replaced, while the Prime Minister’s Office expressed its displeasure towards such rumors. The situation became more confusing.
When Chung busily toured sites and attended events, many said he was trying to hold onto the prime minister post. The coordination between ministries on important policies such as the debt-to-income ratio for real estate loans saw no progress. Many rank-and-file public servants did no work, claiming that key policy directions would change when new ministers came in after the cabinet shake-up. In addition to President Lee’s “working-class friendly” policy, the government had many pending tasks, but it faced a long period of administrative vacuum.
In fact, Chung played his role as the Prime Minister more than well enough. Although the end was not what he had hoped for, Chung deserves to be remembered as one of the most hard-working Prime Ministers in Korean history. The debate over the plan to build a mini-capital at Sejong City started after Chung was appointed prime minister. He pointed out the problems that would arise by splitting the capital city’s administration functions and presented an alternative plan. He aggressively and passionately tried to persuade those who opposed him.
Although protesters threw eggs on him once, Chung visited the area dozens of times and also toured the nation to advocate the need to revise the initial Sejong City plan.
It is hard to find another prime minister who worked as hard as Chung did on a specific issue. The Sejong City plan was ultimately not revised due to irrational discussions and the barrier of populism in Korean politics, not because Chung’s efforts were insufficient or because his plan was flawed.
The Sejong City debate brought about conflicts between regions and factions, and its aftermath will be serious. The debate, however, provided an important opportunity to look deeply into a grave national issue one more time. Although Chung is remembered as “the prime minister who opposed Sejong City,” this is not a dishonor, but an honor.
Yet the last two months of Chung’s embarrassment were caused by President Lee. When Chung first expressed his intention to resign, Lee should have accepted right away. Chung’s role was already limited at the time because the Sejong City revision bills were being rejected. Although Lee saved face by winning the July 28 by-elections, his leadership faced a deadly blow because of the local election defeat and the untimely end of the Sejong City revision bills.
In order to steer the nation effectively during the second half of his term, Lee desperately needed a large-scale reshuffle. The best time to shake up his cabinet, including the post of prime minister, would have been right after the local election defeat, or at least when the Sejong City revision bills were turned down. Had Lee reshuffled his cabinet at the time, he could have turned around the situation a little earlier.
However, President Lee is extremely prudent. There is an old Korean saying that one must knock on a stone bridge before crossing. Lee, however, does not cross the bridge even after he checks to ensure it is strong and reliable. He thinks too much, that the people waiting for his decision grow impatient.
Politics is about timing. A patient may lose his life if the operation is not done in time, and a similar idea holds true in politics. Taking an appropriate measure at an appropriate time always maximizes its impact in politics. No matter how great a policy is, picking the wrong time will produce undesirable repercussions.
Personnel appointments are particularly sensitive to timing. When the nation fell into chaos due to the candlelight protests against Lee’s decision to reopen the market to U.S. beef during the first months of his term, Lee took more than a month and half to replace three ministers. He also spent four months shaking up the cabinet after losing the April 28 by-elections.
Prudence is a virtue when appointing aides, but an undesirably long delay will only make the cabinet powerless and paralyze state affairs. As the public loses interest, the reshuffle is no longer received as fresh and the new system no longer brings about change. When a prayer at the dining table is too long, the dishes will get cold and lose their flavors.
In the Analects of Confucius, Ji Wenzi contemplated something three times before acting upon it. When Confucius heard this, he said, “Twice is enough.”
Whether it is reshuffling the cabinet or making a policy decision, too much prudence always bring about more losses than gains. Here is some advice to the President: Don’t make the public wait too long for the cabinet reshuffle and the appointment of the next prime minister.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Heo Nam-chin