Can you hear me, prime minister?

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Can you hear me, prime minister?


Prime minister nominee Kim Yong-joon is a historic figure in Korea. He overcame polio and became a justice of the Supreme Court and chief justice of the Constitutional Court. At age 74, he served as the head of the transition team for Park Geun-hye. His career is an exemplary case of our society’s maturity.

However, becoming prime minister is a completely different matter. The main problem is his trouble with hearing. He always wears hearing aids in both ears. Elderly people who use them have limited hearing. They have particular difficulty hearing sounds far away. They often have difficulties listening to a speech, lecture or sermon in a big venue or on television from a few steps away.

Kim is no exception. He had difficulty understanding three of seven questions at his first news conference. He repeatedly asked, “Say that again,” or “What did you say?” Cho Yoon-sun, spokesperson of the transition team, had to approach him and repeat the same question for him. He mumbled, “My hearing is not very good.” He even ordered the reporters in an impolite manner, “Those who have questions should write them down - and make them short.”

Healthy hearing is an essential quality for a prime minister, who must attend a weekly cabinet meeting. He has to preside over the meeting every two weeks. The cabinet members sit around a large table and speak into a microphone. Their remarks are amplified through speakers.

The sound system is quite similar to that of the news conference, where Kim failed to understand half of the questions. From now on, cabinet meetings are to be held in a video conference between Seoul and Sejong City, the new administrative capital. Kim would have an even harder time understanding the video conference. In addition to cabinet meetings, the prime minister is expected to preside over many other conferences and attend various events as well.

The interpellations at the National Assembly could be an even more serious problem. It is an intense question and answer session on national administration. Word choice and where an article is in a sentence is very important. Any misunderstanding will inevitably lead to confusion.

Will he order the National Assembly representatives to “make questions simple” as he did with the reporters? Key members of the transition team contend that ministers can answer for the prime minister. But it is highly unlikely that the opposition party would allow it. Can someone who cannot answer questions on government administration become a “responsible Prime Minister?”

In the case of the president’s absence, the prime minister serves as the acting president. So he is expected to have physical strength and be healthy enough to serve as president. When President Park Chung Hee was assassinated in 1979, prime minister Choi Kyu-hah was 60 years old. He had no health problems to serve as an alternate president. When President Roh Moo-hyun’s impeachment was discussed in 2004, Prime Minister Goh Kun was 66 years old. During those two months, he maintained the administration’s energy with solid health.

Park Geun-hye elevated the chief officer of presidential security to a minister-level position. Her intention to strengthen the Office of Presidential Security would be to enhance protection in case of any unforeseen events. The president needs to have not just preventative measures but also fallback plans in case of her absence.

She needs to make sure the prime minister is healthy enough to act for her. Will Kim Yong-joon be able to play the role as an acting president? If a president who has trouble hearing presides over a cabinet meeting, will ministers be able to make remarks as they wish? What would happen if he has problems hearing what is said at high-profile events like international summits or G-20 meetings?

Biological conditions such as health are the most basic criteria when verifying a candidate. It does not require referring to the Blue House personnel records. According to a key member of the transition team, his hearing problem was revealed even when he was serving as team leader. Yet, President-elect Park named him as prime minister. The choice proves that her appointment system has a serious problem.

President Lee Myung-bak nominated Lee Dong-heub for chief justice of the Constitutional Court with the consent of the president-elect. If he is not confirmed, the president is ultimately responsible. But the president-elect is solely responsible for her choice of prime minister. And she made the citizens anxious by making such a dubious choice.

The confirmation hearing will be a challenge. Obviously, the opposition party representatives will pour out questions. What will he do if he does not understand all of them? Will he ask them to write up the questions again? Why does the state need to bare such trouble and concern? The 75-year-old candidate must make a patriotic decision.

*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin
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