In the bunker
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
It was impressive to see U.S. President-elect Joe Biden introducing his new foreign policy team at the end of last month. He said they will tell him what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear. Avril Haines, nominated as director of national intelligence, replied that she will continue “speaking truth to power.”
Biden offered the job so that she can speak uncomfortable truths to her new boss. And she said she has accepted the job to do so. The United States is back after the dark period of Donald Trump’s administration, which privatized power in the most mighty nation on the planet. When will we have such a day? I feel envy and bitterness at the same time.
We saw some similar moments during the first days of the Moon Jae-in administration. At the first senior presidential secretariat meeting in May 2017, Presidential Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok asked Moon, “Can we tell you different opinions when we don’t agree with your orders?”
That was something we never heard during the Park Geun-hye presidency — and is a remarkable advancement. Moon replied nicely. “It is your duty to present different opinions to the president,” he said.
And yet, over the last three years and half we have never heard of presidential aides giving the president straightforward opinions. The corruption scandal of activist-turned-lawmaker Yoon Mee-hyang and the sexual harassment allegations about the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon are all embarrassing issues, but no one gave Moon honest advice about them. And the president kept silent.
Now, even liberal politicians and scholars are expressing concerns. A liberal elder statesman said, “The president is surrounded by democracy activists from the 1980s and is blinded to public sentiment. I used to have comfortable conversations with him, but I have no way to meet him these days, not to mention an opportunity to relay my opinion.”
We have seen this movie before. During the Park presidency, she was surrounded by three key aides. They have been replaced by former activists in the Moon administration. The aides are surrounded by extreme supporters of Moon, known as the “Moon faction.” Emeritus Professor of Korea University Choi Jang-jip said, “The president and the former democracy activists agglomerated into a group.”
Here, even an honest critic is treated as a traitor. During the military dictatorships, betrayal led to death or torture of a comrade. Unity was the top priority. A surprisingly similar culture dominates the Moon administration. The presidential aides maintain their attitude from the 1980s, when they put arms around each other’s shoulders and sang songs for democracy. Due to this “group think,” they believe they are acting bravely to purge Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl for his offenses against their boss, although they know his actions are perfectly illegitimate.
As Moon’s approval ratings plunge, the country is in turmoil. The president is hiding inside a bunker protected by the former activists and the Moon faction. Moon made his first apology for the war between the volatile justice minister and the upright prosecutor general on Monday. But it was too late.
When Trump made no public appearances after his presidential defeat, U.S. media described his state as a “bunker mentality.” For some reason, former President Park had a bunker mentality from the early days of her presidency. Moon appears to have fallen into that mode since a series of disasters took place after the Cho Kuk crisis.
Earlier this year, a merchant in a market told the president that “the economic sentiment sucks.” She was brutally attacked by the Moon faction. If Moon had said, “She has done nothing wrong. Don’t attack her,” in a presidential way, nothing would have happened. But the president remained in his bunker.
Moon has a tendency to feel uncomfortable about unexpected situations. That helps deepen his bunker mentality. According to a memoir by his political mentor Kim Chong-in, Moon was a shy person when he asked Kim to head the Democratic Party as an acting leader in 2016. “His aides mostly talk, and Moon remained silent. He just repeatedly said, ‘Please help us,’” Kim wrote.
According to the newspaper of the Journalists Association of Korea, President Kim Dae-jung and President Roh Moo-hyun each held around 150 press conferences and public briefings during their terms in office. President Park had five and Moon had six.
It took just 13 days for the new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to hold six press conferences after he came into office. Trump had over 200 media interviews, including eight with the New York Times, a paper he claims to despise.
To answer provocative questions from reporters, leaders need a deep understanding of state affairs. If a leader is afraid of being asked about his mistakes or does not have confidence in explaining his key policies, he will avoid such an opportunity. It is not a coincidence that Presidents Kim and Roh had many press conferences while in office.
For Moon, it is imperative to clear up suspicions that he was linked to various scandals such as the faulty assessment report used to shut down the Wolseong-1 reactor and the Blue House’s alleged influence over the Ulsan mayoral election. It will be a disaster for him to be connected to the scandals. He probably thinks it is safe to stay in the bunker for now.
As we have seen in previous administrations, the bunker becomes a more isolated and dangerous place toward the end of a president’s term. Many are saying Moon resembles Park, a failed president, far more than we could have ever expected. That is very unfortunate.