Where is the ‘responsible’ PM?

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Where is the ‘responsible’ PM?

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“It was all thanks to Prime Minister Chung Hong-won,” read an article in the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday. It was a piece on the government’s decision to reserve small-scale public procurement entirely for small- or mid-sized companies. The prime minister played a mediating role to end the dispute between the Ministry of Strategy and Finance and the Small and Medium Business Administration. The article added the prime minister’s role while introducing the new government policy. It is good news for small- and mid-sized enterprises and rewarding for public officials who worked on their behalf.

But it is nevertheless a little embarrassing for the Prime Minister’s Office to publicize the prime minister’s role in mediating the dispute. Emphasizing the rightful duty of the prime minister has, in fact, undermined his presence in the new government. The move may come from over-anxiousness over the heavier burden bestowed on the new prime minister, who has been promised greater authority from the president as a campaign pledge.

The Park Geun-hye administration added responsibility to the prime minister’s post so that he or she can exercise legitimate powers as head of the cabinet. The power of a leader can be determined by the size of media attention. Those with power who make important decisions naturally draw a flock of reporters. He or she is followed around by media. Each media organization would have had rotated senior and junior reporters to trail the prime minister. Let’s imagine that opposition party candidate Moon Jae-in had become the president. He would have had his coalition partner Ahn Cheol-soo as prime minister. If Ahn was seated in the prime minister’s office, the office would have been the most closely-watched after the presidential office.

Let’s come back to reality again. When a chain of nominees for cabinet ministers dropped out, Chung did not take any blame despite his title as “responsible head of the cabinet.” If he actually exercised his right to nominate cabinet members, the opposition would have attacked him for the appointment failures. There is no word that the Prime Minister’s Office in the new government complex in Sejong City is brimming with reporters. One or two from a media organization occupy the press room that covers all of Sejong City, including the prime minister’s office. Even though there aren’t a lot of reporters in Sejong City right now, we would expect at least a few more.

The news stream about the government also can evince the prime minister’s prestige. About 7,100 stories can be searched under his name on Google Korea. Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Hyun Oh-seok and Noh Dae-lae, chief of the Fair Trade Commission, can be found in more than 10,000 news items each. Yoon Jin-sook, nominee to head the revived Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, shows up in more than 26,700 news items. The rankings might differ among portal sites, but the prime minister is evidently not a big newsmaker.

On the face of it, the Prime Minister’s Office has been upgraded. There are now three vice ministerial-level aides in the office instead of the previous one. Bureaucrats congratulated themselves over the prime minister’s new role, although his presence is hardly felt. Something has gone seriously wrong.

We can hardly blame the prime minister for the farce. In a recent radio program, Prime Minister Chung said, “The new title does not give any new authority to me. It may be just that the prime minister is now accountable for any trouble.” Though there is a tone of sarcasm, he has nevertheless hit the nail on the head. Under our political reality, a prime minister cannot wield substantial power as it is within the authorization of the president.

Kim Hwang-sik, the previous prime minister, said last year that it might have been different if he had known how long he would serve in office. As he served longer than most other prime ministers, his comment suggests he could have worked more rigorously if he had known he could last that long. Some are proposing to set the term for the prime minister; A year is too short and two won’t be congruous with the president’s five-year term. Two and a half years could be the best compromise. There is no need to change the Constitution. It could be added in the Government Organization Act or presidential decree.

President Park has promised a stronger role for the prime minister. She could not have changed her mind after a month in the office. She may just be dragging her feet. With so many promises hanging in the balance, there are no signs of broad and fair appointments in government posts or an end to the revolving-door placements. Few would dare to bring up the “reinforced” role of the prime minister at this stage. We might as well forget we ever heard it mentioned.

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

By Nam Yoon-ho

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