A president unmoored
The author is the editor in chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Korea is an excellent student in the school of life. It proudly produced corporate giants Samsung and Hyundai. So why is its governance system constantly getting such poor grades? That was a question that came to my mind when I was talking to former and incumbent politicians, diplomats, scholars and journalists in Tokyo for three days. They agreed that it was a good question. Unreasonably strong powers of the president have shaken up the democratic decision-making process, and the political system has been completely ruined.
The recent scandal involving Cho Kuk would have been unthinkable in Japan. In that country, appointing someone suspected of corruption as justice minister — putting him in charge of the criminal justice system and the process of prosecutorial reform — would have been unthinkable. It is also unthinkable that the president, who appointed such a person, has not apologized for his decision for over three months. In Japan, Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai tendered his resignation just one day after a corruption allegation was raised, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe immediately issued an apology to the public for having appointed him. In Japan, that is common sense.
Kawai is a close associate of Abe. The Japanese people recalled what happened in the early morning of Nov. 9, 2016, when the votes were being counted in the U.S. presidential election. As Donald Trump’s victory — not the anticipated win by Hillary Clinton — became clear, Japan was in shock. Abe met with Clinton two months before. Kawai, then, traveled to Washington and met with close aides of president-elect Trump to arrange a Trump-Abe meeting.
And yet, Abe did not hesitate to let Kawai go. Despite the recent resignation of a trade minister and a scandal in which Abe was accused of having used publicly funded cherry blossom-viewing events for his own benefit, his approval rating is holding up because he respects public sentiment. This week, Abe will become the longest-serving prime minister in Japan.
But the situation in Korea is the complete opposite. The president does not care about public sentiment. Instead, he only cares about his supporters. Under the protection of President Moon Jae-in, Cho became the first beneficiary of the prosecutorial reforms he pushed forward during his 35-day tenure as justice minister: the media was kept at bay when he was questioned by prosecutors. Although he promised to cooperate with the prosecution’s investigation, Cho exercised his right to remain silent and refused to answer all questions. Is this a proper attitude for a former justice minister?
Vice Justice Minister Kim Oh-soo met with Moon alone at the Blue House and briefed the president on a prosecutorial reform plan. Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, who should attend such a meeting, was not invited. Kim told Moon that the prosecution will brief the justice minister in advance before taking every step of an investigation. Korea is a rare country among advanced nations in which the president has power over appointments of the prosecution. As if that is not enough, the administration wants to look into every single detail of an investigation. It is an undesirable change that will degrade the neutrality and independence of the prosecution to a level worse than during the Chun Doo Hwan regime.
The hardships of the prosecutors — who are increasingly complaining about various types of interference in investigations — are getting worse. Moon defined Cho’s corruption allegations as “unfairness within the legal system.” Moon also demanded an “anti-corruption system that will function even without the prosecutor general.”
It is unfair that the president’s five-year term is guaranteed although he ignores public sentiment and his performance is incompetent. It is a fatal weakness of the presidential system. Although the world is in chaos, powers are concentrated on the president. No superhuman can handle this. Delegating authority to the ruling party and the cabinet and cooperating with opposition parties are not mere options. They are a must.
In the Moon administration, however, the size and powers of the Blue House are expanding endlessly. Therefore, public servants are sensitive about even a word by a rank-and-file worker in the presidential office. The distance between the president and public sentiment is growing everyday. If the president understood public sentiment properly, he would not have taken measures to disable the prosecution. How is this different from the Park Geun-hye administration?
The prime minister of Japan, which is run under the cabinet system, frequently meets with even director-level public servants to understand state affairs. Korean presidents have often eaten their meals alone, but Abe sometimes has three dinner meetings a day. His schedule is being publicized by the media. The people know what their prime minister is doing. When he grows apart from the people, his approval rating collapses and he must resign.
Moon made a presidential pledge that he will make public his schedule because a president’s time is a public resource. But that promise has never been kept. The people do not know how the president they elected works. Public sentiment and the president’s decisions are separate. It is a sign that powers are being abused.
Moon’s decision to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan on Friday is an extremely dangerous act. Although the Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry largely opposed it, Moon pushed the decision. Just four days ago, he made clear to the visiting defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States that he will end the agreement as scheduled unless Japan first withdraws export restrictions.
As Korea is poised to withdraw from a trilateral security cooperation system among Korea, Japan and the United States, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is talking about a possible withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea.
When academic fraud allegations were made against Cho’s two children, Moon ordered that more students be selected through their scores on the College Scholastic Ability Test in order to improve fairness. There was no public debate. The Education Ministry, which had been pushing the opposite policy, was in panic. This is a risk that the president poses in implementing a knee-jerk policy.
A system in which the president works alone is wrong. The collective intelligence of the people and professional judgments of civil servants should not be ignored. Three years ago, we witnessed a cruel moment in which a flawed incumbent president was judged at candlelight rallies. Moon’s judgement and attitudes, as he just passed the midpoint of his term, are at just such a dangerous level.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 18, Page 35