Generous to itself

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Generous to itself

Seo Seung-wook
The author is a national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The incident that put a dent in Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s approval ratings occurred last Dec. 14. That night, Suga had a dinner with 15 corporate executives at the New Otani Hotel in downtown Tokyo. Soon after, he and at least seven politicians and actors celebrated the end of the year at a steak restaurant in the Ginza district. His government ordered meals be limited to four or less people to prevent transmissions of the coronavirus. But he followed his own rules at two dinners on the same night. Perhaps double standards are hated by all people around the world, and the Japanese certainly do if the Suga administration’s approval ratings are any indication. Oddly, Suga’s dinners weren’t exposed by the press. It was his own office that let the world know his schedule.

The prime minister’s schedule — detailed down to the minute — is reported by the morning newspapers. The Nikkei reported it like this: “At 19:41 — Had meeting at the New Otani Hotel’s “Edo Room” with Aoki Hironori, chairman of Aoki Holdings; Izumo Mitsuru, CEO of Euglena, etc. At 20:50 — had dinner at steak restaurant Ginza Hirayama with Toshihiro Nikai, cabinet Secretary General; Hayashi Motoo, acting LDP Secretary General; Sadaharu Oh, chairman of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks; Ryotaro Sugi, actor; Minoru Morita, political commentator; Monta Mino, TV personality, etc.”

The reports of the prime minister’s daily schedule are organized from reports from political correspondents as well as information provided by the prime minister’s office. Who the prime minister meets at his office and his personal activities after work are all disclosed for the sake of the public’s right to know. Whom he plays golf with, where he cuts his hair and with whom he had coffee are all included.

Recently, one could infer the prime minister’s personal interests based on which aides he most frequently meets with. As seen with the double-stacked dinners, these disclosures can lead to scandals. But Japan’s prime minister endures this for the sake of communication and the public’s right to know.

President Moon Jae-in made a similar promise before he took his oath of office. In January 2017, before running for president, he promised to disclose the president’s activities for 24 hours of the day, calling the presidential schedule a “public, not private, good.” Such a radical promise was meant to differentiate himself from the controversy faced by former President Park Geun-hye during the seven hours she was missing after the Sewol ferry sinking. But the promise was abandoned once Moon became president. The presidential schedule disclosed by the Blue House on its home page cannot even be compared to an elementary school student’s daily curriculum.

Moon has not properly apologized to the people for breaking his promise. Last September, when North Korea shot and killed a South Korean civil servant, the Blue House remained silent on the opposition’s demand for the disclosure of the president’s schedule for the 47 hours after he received the first reports of the shooting.

The administration keeps mum about promises it has broken, but when it is at a disadvantage, it always talks about promises it made. A good example is the controversy surrounding the shutting down of the Wolsong-1 nuclear reactor, which is now subject to an investigation by the prosecution and an inquiry by the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI).

Ruling Democratic Party Rep. Youn Kun-young, a former presidential secretary for state affairs planning, said the shutdown of the Wolsong-1 reactor was a campaign promise during the last presidential election, and that it had the people’s support on the basis of Moon’s victory. He said it cannot become subject to an audit nor a prosecutorial probe. Equating the electoral victory to public approval for the Wolsong-1 shutdown, Youn called the audit and probe a “challenge to democracy.”

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun made a similar argument during a parliamentary session last week. Regarding the prosecution’s request for an arrest warrant for former Energy Minister Paik Un-gyu, Chung said that as the shutdown of the Wolsong-1 plant was Moon’s campaign promise, he felt “puzzled at how this matter, which was selected as one of the 100 policy goals selected after the inauguration, could be a matter for judicial review.”

This country’s presidential system allows one to become a five-year monarch after one victory. Each presidential election produces radical promises that threaten to overturn the fundamentals of the country. Do the prosecution and BAI both have to ignore this case just because Moon won the election? Can democracy only work when one side shuts up after losing a presidential election? What would this administration’s people say if the Lee Myung-bak administration, for instance, argued in the past that challenging the Korean Peninsula grand canal project was a challenge to democracy? Acting heartlessly against others while being extremely generous to oneself is not the spirit pursued by the so-called “candlelight revolution.”
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