The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Politics is the art of timing. It doesn’t have to be perfect all the time, but it is undesirable for politicians to get the timing wrong on major issues. When they do, an administration can fail and a country can collapse.
Three weeks ago, suspicions arose that a special inspection team at the Blue House spied on civilians. The way the government dealt with the case was an example of bad timing. After missing the best moment to resolve the issue, the Blue House plunged into chaos. President Moon Jae-in’s disapproval rating suddenly exceeded his approval rating. In the media, some said the situation was typical for a president’s second year in office, while others claimed that Moon is now a lame duck president. Even ruling Democratic Party members complain about amateurism in the Blue House.
Moon actually invited the situation. He missed three good opportunities to address the problem.
The first missed opportunity came on Nov. 30, 2018. After consulting with Moon’s Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok, Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Cho Kuk made a dramatic decision to replace the members of the special inspection team under his jurisdiction. He issued a statement that said, “My office concluded that the team cannot perform its duty properly even though only some of the team members were accused of corruption.” It sounded like a statement by a person with absolute power. There was no apology.
As time went on, some new findings were made public, showing that the scandal over abuse of power was a failure by top Blue House officials’ leadership, supervision and judgement. The findings were powerful enough to trigger suspicions that they were operating an illegal surveillance operation on non-governmental targets. Im and Cho downplayed the scandal as a deviation on the individual level and distorted the truth.
I wonder if Im really briefed Moon — who was visiting Argentina for the Group of 20 summit at the time — about the replacement of the special inspection team. If the president received a proper briefing on the case, he should have approved the replacement after finding out the truth from various perspectives. If he was not briefed, he has given too much discretion to Im and Cho.
The second missed opportunity came on Dec. 4. After returning from his overseas trip, Moon sided with Cho instead of firing him. A few days prior to his return, Moon posted a message on Facebook: “Have faith in me. I will make a country that has justice at all costs.” His blind support of Cho baffled the public; Moon urged Cho to “improve the management system to strengthen public discipline.” He also said that “the people will make a right judgment on the suspicion when the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office announces the results of its investigation.”
However, the scandal started from a lack of public discipline and sense of responsibility by the chief of staff and some senior presidential secretaries, not because of a loose management system at the Blue House. Those human factors should have been the basis of a resolution. It was also inappropriate for the president to make a remark that can be interpreted as a hint to the prosecution. Now, the public will not trust the objectiveness of the prosecution’s probe.
The third missed opportunity involves the top Blue House officials’ shameless acts since Moon defended Im and Cho. Senior Public Affairs Secretary Yoon Young-chan, presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom and Anti-Corruption Secretary Park Hyoung-chul all branded a whistle-blowing former inspector “a slippery fish.”
They might have felt a strong need to put an end to the case. But it is an extremely foolish thing to do. The public is disappointed to see the top presidential aides claim they did nothing wrong. If Blue House aides continue to act in this way, the time may come for the president to assume full responsibility.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 24, Page 34