Of grass, winds and principles
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Newspapers reported last week that the prosecution conducted raids to speed up its probe into the suspicion that the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy pressured a number of CEOs of state-run companies appointed during the previous administration to resign. The timing is conspicuous. The investigation made no progress over the past three years, but it started accelerating after the presidential election.
The public feels the upcoming change of administration from such news, not the top news story on the front page. A former senior prosecutor made a joke during a recent dinner: “That is why we say the prosecutors’ grass lays down before the wind blows.”
Defense Minister Suh Wook faced a series of criticisms from North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong. She condemned Suh for his remark: “We have the ability and readiness to conduct a precision strike against the launch site and command and support facilities if there is a clear sign of [North Korean] missile launch.” Suh said what a defense minister must say. North Korea’s missile provocations are escalating, and issuing no warning would amount to a dereliction of duty. North Korea’s condemnations of Suh means that he is performing his job properly as defense minister.
But before the presidential election, no defense minister in the Moon Jae-in administration had spoken so. Minister Suh’s remarks are no different from what President-elect Yoon Sukyeol had said about a preemptive strike when he was a candidate. This is why the people feel that change is coming.
There should be no misunderstanding. I am not saying that the prosecution must delay the investigation as it had done and the Ministry of National Defense must maintain an appeasement policy toward the North. Mistakes of the past must be corrected without delay.
For a public official, conviction is as important as ability and leadership. It is a minister’s job to implement a policy based on the president’s governance philosophy, but there are still principles that must be protected and regulations that must be observed. Conducting an investigation into a suspicion without hesitation and maintaining a strong national security posture separate from inter-Korean dialogue are such principles. Shutting down a nuclear plant’s operation and halting ongoing construction of a nuclear plant should have followed proper processes. And yet, public officials we have witnessed so far put more importance in the president’s intention over principles and rightful processes. They volunteered to be “grass that lay down before winds blow.”
“Grass” is a masterpiece by poet Kim Suyeong. It is a tragedy that the poem is used as a parody to depict soulless public officials. In the poem, grass is a symbol of vitality that overcomes ordeals. The poet’s intention is unclear, but it is often interpreted as a poem that portrayed the people’s will to resist oppression. In the parody, grass is seen as abnormally sensitive to the direction of the wind. “Grass that lay down before winds blow” is remembered, and the “grass that stand up before the winds” has been forgotten. What would the poet say to hear his poem being used in such a manner?
President-elect Yoon and his prime minister-nominee Han Duck-soo say they want to give ministers in the new administration the right to recommend vice ministers, and it is noteworthy. In past administrations, the Blue House often influenced appointments of senior officials at ministries. In the Moon administration, a junior staffer of the Blue House once summoned the Army chief of staff for a meeting to discuss appointment. Yoon’s promise to give appointment power to the ministers is the first step to normalize such an abnormal practice. A similar appointment system should be used not only for vice ministers but also for heads of state-run institutions and companies. If the experiment of the Yoon administration becomes an established practice and is made into a law, we will be able to take one step closer to decentralization of the government.
For the system to succeed, there is a more important precondition than giving ministers actual appointment power to name vice ministers. Yoon must appoint proper ministers with convictions and who take responsibility for outcomes. Giving power to irresponsible ministers is worse than doing nothing. The formation of Yoon’s first cabinet is about to be done. The people are waiting for ministers who will stand up, not lay down, before the winds blow.