The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Lee Kuan Yew once told President Roh Tae-woo that the words of a national leader must be as unique as a fingerprint. He emphasized the need for depth and soul in the speeches of a national leader. The oration of most Korean presidents, except for the speeches of a few, relied on pre-written scripts rather than the original thoughts of the presidents.
President Yoon Suk-yeol has been refreshing to reporters for stopping for doorstep interviews on his way to office. Yoon now in office for a month has answered questions at the doorstep 13 times. Not counting weekends, he may have stopped for exchanges with reporters on more days than skipping them.
Doorstep sessions are not as easy as they might seem. Before becoming president, Yoon sought advice from an old acquaintance. The acquittance told Yoon to get in the habit of reading editorials in morning papers representing conservative and liberal thought to comprehend public sentiment. Yoon promised to do so. He could have been preparing for doorstep interviews at that time.
During a brief conversation, the questions and answers must get to the point and be clear-cut. Figurative packaging and ambiguity should be avoided. It fits Yoon’s straight-talking style. As a result, the public has come to know the thoughts of the president more clearly than before. It is the start of communication.
But there are risks to the doorstep interviews. Even a very responsive and witty person can make a slip of the tongue during dialogue on the spur of the moment. Yoon has already made several slips. Responding to the criticism about favoritism of prosecutors in senior public office appointments, Yoon claimed that many government attorneys are recruited broadly for government offices in the United States and that it could be a sign of a state under the rule of law. Whether U.S. government attorneys can be compared to Korea’s prosecutors is disputable. And I cannot agree with the argument that a country can be more justice-abiding if there are many licensed law practitioners employed in government offices.
I just hope that President Yoon does not equate the rule of law with the rule of law practitioners. If senior government offices responsible for moderating between conflicts of interests are dominated by law practitioners, the rule of law could become the rule by law.
The president’s comment implying his defense of a nominee for education minister under fire for her past drunk-driving allegations has also been less than ideal. On the mound for a doorstep interview, Yoon has shown promising signs as a rookie, but some of his throws have missed the strike zone.
As long as the president stops for his morning routine of doorstep interviews, he could continue to make controversial remarks. Some of them could be a delightful prey to predators who are just waiting for him to make a slip. But the controversies also could be a process of communication and the problems can be addressed in due time.
The president must not stop responding to questions from reporters at the doorstep in fear of causing controversy. A national leader’s speech must be refined and pre-coordinated. But there is a greater value in the direct communication between the president and the people. The public is thirsty for presidential rhetoric with soul and the signature fingerprint.