The ‘number 2’ dilemmaAmid the revelations this past month that Lee Wan-koo was among the politicians who allegedly received bribes from the late businessman Sung Wan-jong, one newspaper headline stood out for highlighting to a global readership that the prime minister’s position itself has lapsed into a state of permanent instability: “South Korea’s latest prime minister offers to resign.”
Note the use of the word “latest” in this headline. It appeared on April 21 on the website of The Guardian, just above this additional, secondary headline: “Corruption scandal prompts Lee Wan-koo’s offer to leave post that four others have either quit or declined to accept since Park Geun-hye became president.”
This rendering of a corrupt, paralyzed, inconsequential high government office is far from the image that Korea wants to project to the rest of the world. Alas, it is exactly how this country’s political system will continue to be portrayed if the crisis surrounding the prime minister’s position is not resolved soon. It is a much deeper problem than Lee Wan-koo and all the other individuals who have come and gone before him.
The prime minister’s position, for all its pomp and circumstance, is not a highly sought position here in Korea. Although the prime minister has a nice residence in quaint Samcheong-dong just a few steps away from the Blue House, children here do not grow up dreaming to become the prime minister.
The office is largely symbolic and has very little real power, and anyone nominated for the position can expect to have their entire life history - especially any proverbial “skeletons in the closet” - opened up to intense public scrutiny. Even in the Lee Myung-bak presidency, the prime minister languished as a weak revolving door post with several swiftly discredited nominees withering away before they could be confirmed by the National Assembly. And the prime minister’s role has become even more weak and unstable given the comedy of errors and paralysis surrounding the post under the Park Geun-hye government.
I have taken to joking that any vindictive Korean president who wishes to embarrass someone need only nominate the chump to serve as prime minister - and then sit back and enjoy the mudslinging. But the prime minister’s post is no joke. Not only is this a key advisory role in the government, but the prime minister becomes acting president if the president were to die in office, resign or be impeached.
The deterioration of the prime minister’s office poses a grave liability to Korea. Every head of a national government needs a deputy, a “number two” executive, and the country is in a vulnerable position if it becomes almost impossible to find good people able and willing to embrace this role and carry it out well. Also, as illustrated by the headline in The Guardian, the current state of crisis in the prime minister’s position hurts Korea’s global image: the number two position in the national government is prone to chronic ridicule and dismissal.
Although “number two” posts are necessary, obviously they are not often coveted. In the United States, a series of recently strong vice presidents (some of them too strong) such as Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden have raised the profile of the job, but the vice presidency generally has been viewed as a consolation prize that becomes a stepping stone to the presidency only in unexpected and disastrous circumstances. John Nance Garner, who served in the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt as vice president of the United States, famously observed that the office “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Many Koreans now feel the same way about the prime minister’s office.
Especially in a highly competitive country such as Korea, where it seems everyone has been conditioned practically from birth to be number one, perhaps it is not surprising that the “number two” position of prime minister has fallen into such a debilitated condition. This is dangerous for the country, though - it has become an urgent problem.
As an outsider to Korea, I do not presume to know exactly how the “number two” executive position in the national government should ideally be configured. It is obvious, though, that this country cannot afford to keep the prime minister’s position the way it is. Either the prime minister’s position should either be strengthened in ways that will render it more attractive to quality candidates, or it should be abolished and replaced with another position designated as the country’s “number two” executive. The current crisis for the prime minister’s position tells us very clearly that Korea needs to deal with this problem now rather than delay action any longer.
*The author is professor of political science at Yonsei University.
by Hans Shattle