Time for a neutral Cabinet

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Time for a neutral Cabinet

Lee Jung-min
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Chinese media outlets are blaming the “Korean government’s incompetence and lack of crisis management ability” for the diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) crisis. This is dumbfounding as it was China that triggered the mess by restricting exports of urea. But we can hardly deny the failure of our government in not seeing the problem coming. Asked why the energy ministry was simply sitting on its hands, a senior official said that the ministry thought the crisis would affect fertilizers only, not ground all diesel cars and trucks.

Over the past month, Koreans were surprised to see a “country they have never experienced,” to use the famous words from Moon Jae-in’s inaugural, once again. They were shocked at the government’s insensitivity to their livelihoods and aghast at the Blue House’s bold decision to promote a deputy minister of the energy ministry — a key suspect in the case of data fabrication on the economic feasibility of the Wolseong 1 reactor in line with President Moon’s nuclear phase-out policy — as his senior presidential secretary for economic affairs at the Blue House.

When diesel truck drivers in particular were struggling to get their hands on any supplies of DEF, the government was engrossed with a quixotic declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War. Moon went to the United Nations, Rome and Glasgow for diplomacy, but not for DEF. In a bilateral meeting in Rome with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the G20 Summit, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong did not mention China’s export ban on urea — the main ingredient in DEF — at all. They were only obsessed with an end-of-war declaration rather than trying to address a critical shortage of DEF.

That was an approach drastically different from Japan, which suffered a rare-earth elements contratemps with China in 2010. At that time, Tokyo swiftly persuaded the United States and the European Union to file a joint complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and accomplished a complete victory. After the price of rare-earth metals plunged, China surrendered. That’s a classic example of successful diplomacy to serve national interests — and the raison d’être of the government.

No one can find fault with a declaration to end the Korean War. It is an issue someone must confront given the inevitability of denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. But now is not the time. Why does the Moon administration rush to make a “political” declaration with less than six months left before its term ends? The lukewarm attitudes of America and China, not to mention North Korea, toward the declaration will certainly not help. The opposition People Power Party (PPP) opposes the notion too. After PPP presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl, former prosecutor general, objected to such a declaration by pointing out the adverse effects of “making a political declaration without North Korea taking concrete steps to denuclearize,” a considerable number of people oppose the declaration.

If the government’s obsession with an end-war-war declaration is aimed at making it a fait accompli, it will push all ideological conflicts in our society into a huge black hole. A departing president must never play with fire at the end of his or her term.

Concerns about the government meddling in an election are deepening each day. Following the vice minister of trade, industry and energy, the vice minister of gender equality and family was accused of devising campaign platforms for the ruling Democratic Party (DP). It looks as if government ministries were commissioned to produce campaign promises for the presidential candidate of the DP. Currently, lawmakers from the DP are serving as prime minister and ministers of justice and the interior and safety, who are directly involved in election management. That’s not all. Even the prosecution, the police, the judiciary and the National Election Commission all seem to be poised to help the ruling party candidate win the election on March 9.

In a strange development, the Blue House does not show any reaction even after watching DP candidate Lee Jae-myung promote hefty universal handouts calling for enormous budgets. The Moon administration repeatedly vowed to keep neutrality in elections. As the maxim goes, a promise is a debt to be paid off. Less than four months are left before the election. If the government really wants to ensure fair election management, it must set up a neutral Cabinet for the presidential election.

There is a precedent. In October 1992, only two months before the 14th presidential election, the conservative Roh Tae-woo administration made a blitzkrieg-like announcement of the establishment of a neutral Cabinet led by Hyun Soong-jong, a scholar with no experience in politics, and replaced the heads of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Political Affairs. Later, the late former prime minister recollected that he changed his mind and accepted President Roh’s offer because of his strong determination to fairly manage the election. A motion on the appointment of the prime minister was endorsed by 96 percent of the votes in the National Assembly.

Other presidents kept their neutrality by leaving their political parties or setting up an impartial Cabinet. They were well aware that they could not cross the river safely by just telling voters, “Trust me!”
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