Presidents often have good starts
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
After Korea introduced the direct presidential election system in 1987, all presidents have tried to close their distance from the public during the early period of their presidential terms. President Roh Tae-woo, for the first time, stopped using an honorific term to refer to himself. President Kim Young-sam often had a bowl of handmade noodle soup, a casual dish in Korea, for his lunch at the Blue House. President Kim Dae-jung stopped the usage of “his excellency,” which was considered a relic of authoritarianism.
President Roh Moo-hyun stepped out from his car to give autographs to elementary school children. President Lee Myung-bak told his staffers to take out the honorific term used to refer him in the Blue House reports addressed to him.
President Park Geun-hye changed a long-held seating arrangement which placed her in the top seat during ministries’ briefing. President Moon Jae-in stood in line at the Blue House cafeteria and served his own meal. All were trying to show their intention to govern the country in a more humble way than their predecessors.
It’s been one week since President Yoon Suk-yeol took office, and we are witnessing many examples of a change in style. Yoon and his wife bowed deeply to greet the former president at the inauguration ceremony and visited an elderly center and childcare center near the relocated presidential office in Yongsan to exchange greetings. On his way to work, his wife saw him off with pets. At the lobby of the presidential office, Yoon answered reporters’ questions spontaneously. Those are the type of moments we have not seen in past administrations.
The presidential couple’s weekend outing and shoe shopping at a department store, a surprise even to their staffers, were also surprising events. On the day after his inauguration, Yoon told his presidential aides to “work hard so that your shoe bottoms will be worn out,” and the events could have been a silent message to his secretariat and cabinet.
Yoon’s principle on appointments is “ability first.” According to his determination to select aides of great ability to serve the people properly, artificial quotas for genders or hometowns were not his priority.
Yoon’s way of working is centered on pragmatism. He hosted a secretariat meeting at a round table and promoted a “free style” by telling aides to wear whatever they wanted and speak candidly.
Amid the changes, we still see the chaos and conflict we have experienced in the past when a new administration was launched. The conflict between the outgoing and incoming administrations during the course of relocation of the presidential office was so tense that it reminded us of the conflict during the transition period of the Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak administrations.
Moreover, Yoon’s new government is largely filled with men in their 60s who graduated from Seoul National University, similar to the past presidents’ practices of appointing top officials from certain backgrounds. The Lee administration favored people who graduated from Korea University, members of the Somang Presbyterian Church and whose hometowns were in Yeongnam region. In the Park administration, those who graduated from Sungkyunkwan University or Gyeonggi High School and who passed the state-run exams were appointed to top posts. In the Moon government, people from Moon’s election campaign and the Democratic Party were appointed to key posts.
Yoon chose elementary, high school and university schoolmates to fill key posts in the presidential office. His close associates from the prosecution were named to powerful posts in charge of budget and operations. Prosecutors punished for having fabricated an espionage charge against a public servant or sexual harassment allegations were appointed as presidential aides, and Yoon’s governing philosophy of fairness and common sense could be questioned.
Kim Chong-in, former acting leader of the People Power Party, who briefly helped Yoon during the presidential campaign, said he decided to write a memoir in 2020 because of déjà vu and history repeating itself. The veteran political strategist analyzed past administration that launched grandly but fell into the same mistakes.
In order to avoid such repetitions, Kim presented a resolution that a leader must embrace the opposition. In conclusion, the answer is the politics of unity.
What will the Yoon government be like in five years? To avoid repeating the past, Yoon must not push bigoted appointments that will be an obstacle to unity. He must remember the promise of cooperative politics that he made in his budget speech at the National Assembly on May 16.