Who’s pulling the strings?
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in was asked if he had his own thoughts. Outspoken liberal critic Chin Jung-kwon in June called him a “president of ceremony who reads off a script from someone else and plays along on a stage arranged by his protocol secretary Tak Hyun-min.” Former and existing presidential staff all had some retorts for Chin. Former speech secretary Choi Woo-kyu claimed the president edits drafts of his speeches with a pencil. Former communication secretary Yoon Young-chan posted a photo of Moon editing a printed speech on social media. In fact, those defenses portrayed Moon as someone who merely edits other’s writing.
Another former staffer also denied that the president simply reads aloud what others wrote. But none of them denied Tak’s important role. Why not? Moon’s address on Youth Day on Sept. 19 offers a clue.
“Fairness” was the predominant theme of the speech. Moon mentioned the term 37 times during the speech. On Facebook, Tak not only hid the fact that he authored the script, but also boasted that he had put extra effort into the event by summing up his days of youth. It was a Blue House ceremony hosted by the president, and Tak was required to play his role of assisting the president. In a normal relationship between the president and a staffer, Tak’s existence would never be known to the general public.
But Tak publicly boasted about the effort he put into the wording of the speech. He even said that a present given to the president by K-pop superstars BTS was “my gift to him.” Contrary to Tak’s elaborate and emotional recollection, Moon’s comment on the day was cut-and-dry. “The government will do its best to embody fair opportunities. I hope our young generation goes on imagining, venturing and running toward their dream.” All of this suggests Tak indeed could be the director and the president an actor playing his dutifully his scripted role.
There are other bits of evidence backing that assumption. On Sept. 12, when the president visited the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), now the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), to personally deliver a certificate promoting Jung Eun-kyeong to the vice-ministerial chief of the elevated agency, Moon said. “It is the first time a presidential certificate was given outside the Blue House.” On Facebook, Moon wrote, “I thought it was meaningful to share the ceremony with the heroines and heroes who led to the upgrade of the agency. Jung also had such an idea.” On the following day, Tak stole the credit, claiming the event had been his idea. “The more modesty in a show of power and the more simplicity in formalities, the greater the authority can become and the bigger empathy a ceremony can give. The ceremony [of Jung] was once again a lesson showing how a change of mind can move the public. The thought has hit my head like a hammer and hardens my work.”
The general public is banned from holding indoor activities and even marriages under strict social distancing rules to fight the virus threat. What is so moving about rounding up a staff — probably the busiest people in the country in the battle against Covid-19 — for a photo session with the president handing over the certificate of appointment to their chief? Worse, Tak has undermined the authority of the president and the glory of Jung by implying that the ceremony was staged by him. If the director insists on taking all the credit, the play is his — not the actors’.
Why is Tak not content in the shadows backstage? An opposition lawmaker called him a “narcissist.” If not, why does he make the president his puppet? As if to follow in Tak’s footsteps, presidential aides often dominate the main stage. When the president’s social media posting came under fire for stoking conflict between nurses and doctors on strike, his staffers came to his defense and detailed who writes his speech.
When the president’s comment about calling the decision to subsidize 20,000 won ($17) off mobile phone bills to all citizens “a show of small comfort from the government” caused uproar, the presidential office laid the blame on the ruling Democratic Party (DP) to defend the president. But they are hardly protecting the president, as they are actually hurting his dignity. Presidential words and actions cannot have weight if he is suspected of merely playing along with what has been arranged by his staff.
Former spokesman Yoon Tae-young said every speech by President Roh Moo-hyun had “his soul” even if he did not directly write every one of them. “What is important is the essence, not the expression,” Yoon said. But what about today’s president? The Blue House is oblivious because it is too absorbed in Tak’s sentimentalism.