[Viewpoint] The prime minister’s glass ceiling

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[Viewpoint] The prime minister’s glass ceiling

The confirmation hearing for Prime Minister-designate Kim Tae-ho concluded after an intense offensive by the opposition party. The emergence of a young leader from the next generation must have made opposition politicians feel especially vulnerable. The 47-year-old former governor was born the son of a cow dealer, went to an agricultural high school and majored in agriculture in university. As emotions in the confirmation process rose, it was hard to tell whether being named prime minister is like riding a palanquin sent by the king - or climbing atop a funeral pyre.

What is the chance of a minister becoming king?

Statistically and historically, the possibility is very slim. In ancient China, ministers appointed by emperors and kings had little job security and could always be chucked aside after being framed by the enemies or on the whim of the rulers. Cao Cao is one of the rare cases of a chancellor seizing great power and posthumously being named Emperor Wu of Wei. In Korea, Jeong Do-jeon wielded mighty power as the No. 2 man after helping found the Joseon Dynasty, but he could not avoid death by Lee Bang-won - the third king of Josean - in the struggle for the throne.

The United States have had 44 presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama, and only five of them - George H.W. Bush, Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Van Buren, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - were elected president directly after serving as vice president, which should be the second most powerful position in a presidential system. Richard M. Nixon served as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower for eight years, but he was defeated by John F. Kennedy in the presidential election of 1960. He was elected president eight years later. The vice presidency is often derided as one of the failed positions created by man, and some joke that the first thing the president needs to do upon inauguration is to instruct his vice president: “You are not the president.”

In the Republic of Korea, the possibility of a prime minister gaining absolute power is zero. Among the 40 prime ministers from the founding of the nation to Chung Un-chan, there has not been a single case of a prime minister becoming president. Former President Choi Kyu-ha had been a prime minister but was forced to serve as an interim president in the chaotic situation after the death of Park Chung-hee. In fact, 12 prime ministers were natives of North Korean provinces, and their lack of regional affiliation and power base gives a good idea how presidents chose their prime ministers.

So history demonstrates how hard it is for a No. 2 appointed by the No. 1 to become a No. 1 on his own. In order to get to the top, he needs to achieve three difficult feats: First, he has to have his own image. Second, he has to make his own accomplishments. And third, he must also have - and this is the tough part - an ideal relationship with the No. 1.

An appointed No. 2 can’t break his ties with the No. 1. In the U.S., the vice president is often disparaged as a “spare tire” for the president. In Korea, the prime minister is often considered a “sidekick” who makes speeches when the president is otherwise engaged.

Prime Minister Lee Hoi-chang made a memorable impression by confronting President Kim Young-sam. Lee Hae-chan cruised through as a competent and powerful prime minister, but his views and speeches weren’t distinguishable from President Roh Moo-hyun’s. Chung Un-chan had a certain appeal as a progressive prime minister for the conservative administration, but he had to step down after belly-flopping with the controversial Sejong City project.

The prerequisites for rising to the top are a sophisticated political sense, policy vision and a flair for discovering talent. Cao Cao is remembered as a villain, but as a chancellor he established effective policies such as using the army for farming and using mandatory military service to bolster the economy and national defense.

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson was successfully elected in 1964 - after succeeding the slain Kennedy in Nov. 1963 - because of his policies to eradicate poverty and racial discrimination. Johnson and Nixon were veteran politicians who were good at persuasion, pacification and arm twisting.

It is not easy being a prime minster. He has to project his own image and prove his competence without provoking the president. However, as we have seen in the relationship between former president Kim Young-sam and Lee Hoi-chang, and the failed presidential ambition of Lee in-je, the reality is that the president might not be able to crown his successor, but he can prevent individuals from getting nominated or elected.

So a prime minister becoming king is not based on base politics alone, but also heaven’s blessing. I am watching with interest the future of Kim Tae-ho, who has suffered so many wounds from the beginning.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is editor of the JoongAng Ilbo’s Saturday section.

By Choi Hoon
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