Beyond national divisionPrime Minister Goh Kun made a perfect acting president during a politically delicate time. In 2004, President Roh Moo-hyun was waiting for a ruling from the Constitutional Court over the legislature’s motion to impeach him.
Goh, a career bureaucrat whose hardworking image earned him the nickname “Mr. Stability,” was shrewd enough to keep a low profile during a sensitive period. When a blizzard hit the central region, he flew to the scene on the presidential chopper. He insisted it leave from the Yongsan military base — instead of the Blue House — out of respect for the president who was still its legal tenant.
When Goh had to make an address to the Air Force Academy on behalf of the president, he demanded the original text of the speech from the Blue House when his aide tweaked it to meet his boss’s style. He took pains not to intrude on the president.
Goh was always respectful toward the opposition. He sent a staffer from his office to the main opposition to personally explain why the administration opposed a motion revising the special pardon law. After being hit with public backlash for railroading the impeachment, the Grand National Party willingly backed the acting president.
The government ran smoothly as the acting leader was skillful in statesmanship and earned full support from both the Blue House and legislature. He made a successful substitute even without having done much.
But things don’t always turn out as well. A power vacuum created by impeachment could bring about catastrophic chaos. Brazil is one case. The country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in August on charges of manipulating the federal budget to conceal the country’s poor economic state. The nation was heavily divided leading up to impeachment, with protests going on for months.
After the decision, the protests turned into violent riots. The economy has become a complete mess. Once the poster child of emerging markets, Brazil contracted 3.8 percent last year and is expected to post negative growth of 3.5 percent this year.
Yet policymakers on this side of the world do not seem to be that worried. They believe the Goh Kun experiment will work this time as well.
But the circumstances are completely different from 12 years ago. Back then, the Constitutional Court ruling came two months after the impeachment vote. But this time, the unrest could last up to 240 days when including the presidential election that must come after the court’s ruling.
Moreover, the political ordeal back then took place when there was no other major trouble. The acting president did not need to make crucial judgments. The inter-Korean relationship, international affairs and economy were all stable. Pyongyang, which was used to a generous engagement policy from Seoul, fretted about interruption in aid from the South. Military provocation was the least worry.
The Bush administration in the United States was also too busy with a second-term election later that year to meddle in Korean affairs.
There was little concern about any friction between the two allies. Domestic and foreign research institutions all raised their economic forecasts from an earlier estimate of 4.5 percent annual growth. The waters were all smooth when Goh took charge.
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, on the other hand, faces a seriously perilous climate. Pyongyang is eager to get attention from Washington and could carry out a provocation at any minute. President-elect Donald Trump could threaten to pull out American forces if South Korea does not pay more to sustain the troops. The fragile economy could break from the slightest shock.
What’s an acting captain to do? Does he do what he is supposed to — merely keep his hands on the wheel to prevent the ship from capsizing — or does he use most of his power to go as far as steer the ship out of tumultuous waters? All the challenges that the country faces are sensitive and could encounter strong protest from different ideological groups. Hwang could be blamed for worsening the national divide. Veterans have warned that the country could be seriously rattled after the impeachment vote. But the main opposition Minjoo Party is eager to try kicking out Hwang, too, instead of helping him restore order.
We must not be divided in the goal of restoring stability. The decision-making mechanism should be fine-tuned to prevent chaos. Hwang could promise to endorse the new chief of the Constitutional Court nominated by the legislature.
The head lawyer for Roh broke into tears when the Constitutional Court ruled against his impeachment in May 2004. When asked what the most painful moment was, he said his heart hurt most seeing people so heavily divided.
That lawyer was Moon Jae-in, the former leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 10, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.