How to become a self-illuminating president
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol as a prosecutor was legendary. He stoically endured pressure from recent two administrations under presidents Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in. Regarded as a symbol of fairness and justice, Yoon was recruited by the conservatives seeking to win back power and won the March 9 presidential election.
His father Yoon Ki-joong, an emeritus professor at Yonsei University, had been stern in disciplining his son. He made his son cancel his scholarship while majoring in law at Seoul National University, telling him that the award should go to someone in a more difficult situation. Yoon must have unselfish character along with explosive energy for the career prosecutor to ascend to the chief executive position at one go.
The faces of Korean presidents were either self-illuminating or enjoyed the halo of the top title. Someone with self-emitting radiance is worth a chapter in the history books. Yoon as a prosecutor shone. But as a statesman or politician, he is untested. He should not feel embarrassed by this fact, as he had to move to the political stage as a player for a certain political force. But if Yoon adds modesty to his cleverness and experience and humbles before the people, he can be politically brilliant, too. He can indeed make history.
Former president Roh Moo-hyun like Yoon was a political outsider. The self-made lawyer-turned-politician built incredible energy through conviction and actions quite different from the political mainstream. I still remember an unpretentious conversation I had with Roh who represented Jongno in downtown Seoul for the ruling party in February 1999.
“I couldn’t go to university because our family was too poor. I had been self-conscious of it throughout my life. While doing hard labor, I built a cottage in a mountainside and studied law on my own. I lived with my wife and had a son without having a wedding ceremony. Luckily, I passed the state bar exam and became a judge, lawyer and lawmaker. I want to create a world where poor and difficult people also can live in confidence. I want to run for president. I won’t have regrets even if I lose everything. First, I must run in Busan in the parliamentary elections next year. I met with President Kim Dae-jung. I pleaded with him to pay attention to the needs for Gyeongsang Province, because if my approval ratings rise in the region, so would the president’s. I also sought his understanding that I may have to speak negatively about him to gain favor with the people in Gyeongsang.”
A younger lawmaker has blatantly told the president he would attack him. Roh walked away from dissident-turned-president Kim Young-sam after he joined up with military general-turned president Roh Tae-woo and No. 2 Kim Jong-il. Roh took risks and did not waver. He, however, lost the parliamentary election in April 2000 due to deep-seated regionalism. But it was when the “Roh Moo-hyun, the fool” fan club was born.
When elected president in December 2002, Roh was radiant. Protests by his die-hard supporters could not stop him from seeking a free trade agreement with the United States and sending troops to Iraq to back U.S. engagement. Roh upheld national interests even if he had to bet his hard-won political assets. He was different from others who sacrificed national interests for selfish gains. He was ruthlessly attacked and lonely. But history paid him respects.
Can President-elect Yoon pave his own way like Roh? Yoon would break his promise to become a president of unity if he gets overwhelmed by the cries from his political party demanding revenge against President Moon Jae-in and his presidential rival Lee Jae-myung in return for awarding him the presidential candidacy.
It has been inexcusable for the Democratic Party (DP) to railroad through a bill to strip the prosecution of its investigation authority to prevent prosecutorial probes of Moon and Lee. Still, Yoon was not prudent in fielding his closest ally Han Dong-hoon — a senior prosecutor who had been at the forefront of the war with the Moon Jae-in administration — as justice minister.
The investigations of the Daejang-dong development scandal that implicates Lee — and the Blue House’s alleged meddling in the Ulsan mayoral election and its decommissioning of aged nuclear reactors — should proceed according to the judiciary system. The state chief should only make sure the procedure is run on justice, fairness and common sense. If the president wages war himself, the division could intensify. Governance will be difficult against the contentious legislature with a super-majority opposition.
In the first direct presidential election on December 19, 1987, Roh Tae-woo beat Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil. The intelligence office, police and prosecutors all dug up dirt on the three rivals and reported to the ruling party candidate. But Roh did not use it against them. Roh humbled himself for engaging leadership to see through a successful transition from a military regime to a democracy. President-elect Yoon must learn from humble and “foolish” leadership instead of paying heed to the voices of hatred calling for revenge.
In his memoir, President Roh Moo-hyun wrote that no age had passed smoothly for him. In other words, he had faced headwind and challenges directly. Yoon’s historic role is to end the politics of division. He must pave the way for unity and cooperation. Yoon must withdraw the nomination of Chung Ho-young as the health and welfare minister, who is under fire for alleged favoritism, if he does not want to betray his cherished values of fairness and unity.
A big bird flies against the wind and the fish swims against the waves.
The “fool” Roh Moo-hyun kept the wise quote from Chinese ancient sage Zhuangzi at heart. Yoon must keep at bay the temptation to ride on the cheers of his supporters.