It all begins with appointments

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It all begins with appointments

Kang Won-taek
The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

Many must have had sleepless nights last Wednesday as they watched the election returns on TV. The presidential election was a nail biter. The winner was determined by a 0.73-percentage point gap, and politicians must have realized once again the importance of each and every vote.

The winner must have felt that it was never easy to take power back no matter how favorable the external situation looked. The loser must have felt that it is easy to lose public support if he shows high-handedness and carelessness in governance.

Although there was no substantive discourse during the campaign, I believe that the key phrase for the election was a “change of the governing power.” In all opinion polls, the public consistently showed aspirations to replace the current government with a new one. Disappointments and dissatisfactions toward the past five years of the Moon Jae-in administration led to the election of former prosecutor general Yoon Suk-yeol — a rookie who does not know political grammar or calculations — as president. At the end of the day, a public desire for changing the governing power determined the outcome of the election.

But denying everything and changing anything will create serious problems. A victor after an election often makes a mistake of denying everything done by the past government. After winning the presidential election in 2007, the conservatives branded the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun presidencies “a lost decade.”

It may have been an effective campaign slogan, but it actually became an obstacle. For a decade under the two liberal administrations, society changed much. Though the conservative Park Geun-hye administration thought the past decade was dissatisfactory, it was unrealistic to reverse everything done by the two liberal presidents. A victor’s political, ideological biases and arrogance from a triumph distorted their perception.

After winning the 2007 presidential election by a margin of 5.31 million votes, the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration was intoxicated with victory, and reversed the ongoing negotiation by the Roh Moo-hyun administration on reopening of the Korean market to U.S. beef imports without serious consideration. And we all know what happened. Some activists and politicians provoked the people’s anxiety about mad cow disease and candlelight rallies continued. The new administration ended up wasting its precious first three months.

Both conservative President Park Geun-hye and liberal President Moon Jae-in vehemently attacked the energy diplomacy of the Lee administration but realized the importance of the policy after the country was hit by an abrupt shortage of urea solution and the aftermath of the war in Ukraine. The new president must abandon political and ideological biases and demonstrate a pragmatic attitude to accept the changed reality to avoid repeating the same mistake. Even if a policy shift is necessary, it is unrealistic to completely deny the past. The Yoon Suk-yeol administration must not come up with premature alternatives without seriously reviewing policies of the previous administration.

The latest election is proof of serious division in our society. All elections in the past were fierce, but this one was the tightest race between two major candidates. As negative campaigning and criticism toward rivals went too far, regionalism, ideological and generational conflicts as well as gender competition deepened. The president-elect’s most important challenge is national unity. It starts from appointments.

Yoon must recruit talent beyond his party, his campaign team and the conservative political spectrum. In the past, the public became disappointed at new presidents because of close-minded appointments at the beginning of their terms by selecting aides only from a specific group such as the campaign team. 
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks about the direction of his administration in a meeting on Monday with members of the transition committee. [JOINT PRESS CORPS] 

For the politics of unity, Yoon must understand the half of the voters who did not vote for him and hire aides with talent and high ethics regardless of their political affiliations. Such politics of engagement and openness is necessary because his party is outnumbered by the rival party with 172 seats in the 300-member National Assembly.

During the campaign, Yoon said, “I have learned how to listen to people’s voices,” but his desperation to listen to the public will be weakened now that the election is over. But he cannot be a successful president if he does not listen to the people’s sentiments. You can easily see a mountain when you are standing far away, but once you walk into it, you cannot see it.

If Yoon only takes advice from a handful of close associates, his judgement will get cloudy. He must not rely on a precious few at the Blue House. He must communicate frequently with the party and meet many people to listen to voices from outside the presidential office.

Although Yoon won the presidency, a condition is attached to the supporters’ backing for him. Yoon’s victory is different from the victories of Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who had unconditional backing from their supporters. The voters cast ballots for Yoon without fully knowing who he is. They said they will wait and see how the new president will work. Yoon must keep his promise of politics of unity and communication. 
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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