A curious choicePresident Park Geun-hye went ahead with her appointment of Yoon Jin-sook as the minister of oceans and fisheries despite overwhelming opposition from almost everyone. Yoon became a subject of ridicule for repeating “I don’t know” at her confirmation hearings. According to a poll, 64.7 percent of the population disagree with the president’s choice. And yet, Park defended her by saying, “She said she panicked and could not remember anything. She said she would do her best.” Why does the president want Yoon so badly?
On Jan. 18, 2008, an urgent discussion took place at the VIP dining room of the National Assembly over whether it was desirable to shut down the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. It was a meeting to condemn the Lee Myung-bak administration’s decision to shut down the ministry. Yoon attended the meeting on behalf of Lee Jung-hwan, head of the Korea Maritime Institute, and gave a presentation on the theme that the maritime administration should be managed comprehensively.
Maritime and fisheries experts who attended that discussion protested the ministry’s dissolution one after another. Park must have paid special attention to Yoon at the debate. “If you are talking about professional expertise, she has done a lot of research,” Park said of Yoon.
But those who attended the session recalled it differently. Professors from Seoul National University and Chonnam National University as well as representatives from the Korea Federation for Environmental Movement and Green Korea United said that they could not remember Yoon’s presentation, adding that they would have remembered if it were impressive.
Former officials of the Maritime Ministry recalled that Yoon’s presentation was not memorable, but she gave clear, concise replies during the question-and-answer session. Some of them also said Park stopped by briefly during the Q&A session.
Park said she picked Yoon to empower women. But the maritime and fisheries industry is a rough field - dominated by men for a long time. Only a few women in their 50s hold doctoral degrees in the field.
And there is also a real problem. The revived Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries has three major imminent tasks. First, the ministry needs to confront Japan and China over the Dokdo and Ieodo islets. Korea’s Asian neighbors are aggressively trying to redraw maritime boundaries. The ministry also will oversee the Korea Coast Guard and handle fishery disputes with neighbors - a tough challenge. Furthermore, the agriculture and fisheries industries are the most sensitive areas in the negotiation of a Korea-China-Japan free trade agreement.
It is important to think about Yoon’s competitiveness with her counterparts. China established last month the National Oceanic Commission to promote its vision of a maritime superpower. Chinese State Oceanic Administration Director Liu Cigui is a hardliner who argues that the Ieodo islet is Chinese territory within the range of its regular patrol. Furthermore, China’s premier Li Keqiang and Ma Kai, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, personally oversee maritime and fisheries affairs.
Yoshimasa Hayashi, the Japanese minister for agriculture, forestry and fisheries, is also not a pushover. Graduating from the University of Tokyo and having studied at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he is a young, ambitious elite considered likely to become the country’s next foreign minister. “Koreans eat dog and Australians eat kangaroo, and why can’t Japanese eat whale?” he complained in response to the international community’s whaling ban.
Park was praised for keeping Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-jin and appointing Chae Dong-wook as the prosecutor general. It is particularly important to pay attention to her appointment of the prosecutor general, as it went through the recommendation committee. Eight experts in the prosecution were members of the recommendation committee and they vet nine candidates on almost every aspect, ranging from military service to tax payment records.
They also contacted a wide spectrum of people, from former heads of the prosecution to junior prosecutors, to ask about the candidates’ reputations. As the prosecution has increasingly lost in major cases, the recommendation committee members gave the ability to command an investigation top priority and narrowed down the eight candidates to three, then to one - Chae.
A mid-term evaluation is also needed on Park’s secrecy-based appointments. A senior official in charge of appointments reportedly eats all three meals inside the Blue House because he wants to avoid people asking him favors. That, however, doesn’t guarantee a successful appointment.
Park, of course, may have an eye for recognizing talent. Elizabeth I of England picked Francis Drake, who was a pirate, and won a victory against the Spanish Armada. But we have seen too many botched appointments to expect the special betting eye from Park.
When North Korea’s war threats do not subside, it’s too much for the people to worry about Park’s appointment of Yoon. The president should have listened to the experts, just like she did for the prosecutor general appointment.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho