Watch your nominations, Yoon
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“There is a history that a new president’s first appointments are emotionally touching, because he or she uses the entire country as a human resources pool and selects fresh faces to create a dream team,” said an elder statesman, who had served as a presidential chief of staff. “As stable governance is important during the mid-term, experienced former ministers and talented technocrats are often appointed to top posts. But at the end of the presidency, the president’s key allies are appointed more, as there is a little time left.” His analysis sounds convincing as it reflected his experience as the chief of staff in the Blue House.
But appointing allies to key posts throughout a president’s term has become a norm. The new practice ended the possibility of creating a “dream team.” Presidents have split the country between the conservatives and the liberals and selected aides only from the half of the human resources pool that belonged to his or her ideological spectrum.
Many people said they were not impressed by the first Cabinet member selections of President Yoon Suk-yeol. Because he needs the approval of a supermajority opposition holding 172 seats in the 300-member National Assembly, the president-elect nearly gave up picking a new face and nominated Han Duck-soo as prime minister given his experience as prime minister under the liberal administration. That’s an understandable choice. But the list of 18 Cabinet minister nominees is far from touching the people’s hearts. And it is hardly a dream team. Yoon’s disappointing nominations may be related to his stagnant approval rating in recent polls.
Various allegations were raised over Yoon’s nomination of Chung Ho-young, a former head of a university hospital, as health and welfare minister. But Yoon reportedly wanted to wait to see if there are “clear facts about his irregularities.” It is possible that Chung may have not violated any law. It is also possible that even if he had committed any irregularities, it may never be revealed. But the people’s perception is critical for another reason. Chung is known as Yoon’s friend of 40 years. Chung said that he was contacted about the nomination two days before the announcement and agreed to undergo a vetting process the next day. The public is not naïve enough to believe that the nomination is not based on their personal relationship.
Even if Chung is free from any allegations and is the best candidate with experience and capabilities, it is appropriate to rule out a friend of the president from the candidate pool. It may be cruel to Chung, but it should be taken as reverse discrimination for having a president as a friend.
Among the nominees for Yoon’s first Cabinet and the presidential office, many have personal relationships with him, including friends from elementary and high school and university. Han Dong-hoon, nominated to be the justice minister, became Yoon’s ally while working as a prosecutor together with Yoon, a former prosecutor general. But Han is still like a close friend of Yoon’s given his past trajectory.
Furthermore, nominating Han will likely shut the door of cooperative politics with the opposition, which was opened by naming Han Duck-soo as the prime minister. The ruling Democratic Party, which will become the opposition after Yoon takes office on May 10, is certainly abusing its majority status to completely take away the prosecution’s investigative authority in a crusade for prosecutorial reforms. But Yoon’s nomination of his close aide in the prosecution as justice minister only helps complicate the situation further.
Because Yoon was a prosecutor throughout his career, his network may be small. And he had little time to prepare for his presidency. Furthermore, as winning the presidential election was the most desperate task for the opposition People Power Party, there was not enough time to plan Cabinet selection in advance. Yoon, however, needs to listen to the voices outside his election campaign and try to find talented candidates from outside. It is not too late. For his five-year term, he needs to appoint hundreds of top officials and approve thousands more for his administration.
Yoon is known to value friendship and loyalty. Many of his friends must be talented enough to work for the government even now. A story of a long-time friend of Yoon, who is working as a professor, has spread recently. The friend who had supported Yoon’s entry into politics and helped his election, reportedly sent a text message to Yoon the day after the election. “Let’s meet again after five years,” he wrote. We hope to see more such friends of the president-elect.