[Viewpoint] President Lee, the problem is you“We should have opposed it no matter what,” Blue House secretaries were lamenting as the controversy over Chung Tong-gi’s appointment mushroomed. Although Chung walked away from the nomination yesterday, no face was saved: The worst had already hit the Blue House, and even the ruling Grand National Party opposed the president’s choice.
There were negative opinions over Chung Tong-gi’s eligibility within the Blue House initially. In addition to the controversy over the big paycheck Chung received for a few months’ work at a law firm, there was skepticism over the former senior secretary’s neutrality and independence if he became head of the Board of Audit and Inspection.
However, the Blue House cadre didn’t oppose the decision since President Lee Myung-bak had confidence in Chung. It is regrettable that none of his aides had the courage to directly protest the appointment. The president’s decision-making can be helped when aides provide their honest opinions. But the secretaries and aides just sat back and watched as the president went down the wrong road. The controversy over Chung Tong-gi is especially worrisome because it represents a failure in presidential decision-making.
On the surface, the aides may seem to be at fault. First of all, they treated the situation too lightly. Chung is the very person who made the BBK stock price manipulation scandal go away, removing perhaps the greatest obstacle to Lee’s presidential election. When he served as deputy prosecutor general, he announced that the investigation result showed that the BBK scandal was not true.
When he was the senior secretary to the president for civil affairs, he was at the center of an alleged illegal probe of a businessman who had criticized the administration. If the confirmation hearings had been held, the BBK scandal and the illegal probe would surely have been brought up. The aides could easily foresee the upcoming catastrophe and blew their chance to prevent it. The aides lacked courage and neglected their duties.
However, a more fundamental problem is the internal atmosphere in the Blue House. Aides cannot say no to the president, and it is the president who is primarily responsible for creating such an atmosphere. President Lee is known for micromanaging. He is also very opinionated. Although it is not often that he gets upset or reprimands, he is very picky and has to get involved in every issue, small and big. He has clear likes and dislikes and always expresses a strong opinion on every issue. Those who worked in the Blue House say that it’s not easy to express a contrary opinion.
The controversy over Chung Tong-gi stems from Lee’s deep trust in him. Blue House aides know the president is reluctant to appoint fresh blood, and he also wants to pay back people who helped him in the past. When the aides know perfectly well what the president is doing and why, how can they openly disagree?
The ancient Chinese philosopher Han Feizi said, “The ruler must not let his desire be seen. If his desire is disclosed, the ministers will adorn themselves.” At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. President John F. Kennedy intentionally did not attend a White House strategy meeting at which the U.S. response to the crisis would be determined. He thought his personal tendencies or prejudice could unduly influence the right decision for the country.
That crisis was so tense that a nuclear clash between the United States and the Soviet Union -not to mention a third World War - were possible. Military and foreign policy experts engaged freely in discussion without the president and came up with an objective and clear conclusion. The crisis ended with a total victory for the United States, and the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles from Cuba.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who presided over the meeting, later recalled that the absence of the president greatly helped the participants make the best possible decisions. President Kennedy made decisions based on advice from his experts and persuaded the citizens and Congress, focusing on bringing the nation together. It was a great example of presidential leadership, and the president of Korea can learn from the case.
The Grand National Party’s rebellion pushed President Lee into the greatest crisis of his administration. Ruling party representatives, who are the “storm troopers” for the president’s policies, are opposing him publicly. Even the greatest policy idea cannot become law without going through the National Assembly, and now that the ruling party has become an obstacle, President Lee Myung-bak is truly cornered.
There is only one solution: the president himself has to change. He needs to overhaul the policy making process in the Blue House and the government. And he has to engage in the politics of dialogue, whether he likes it or not. The president must never forget that he is central to our nation’s politics.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Heo Nam-chin