Yoon’s small pond

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Yoon’s small pond

Kim Dong-ho
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s refreshing moves continue. It all started with his bold decision to relocate the palace-like presidential office to Yongsan shortly after his election in March. The move was impossible without determination. A head of state answering questions from reporters at the doorstep of his office is another meaningful change from the Moon Jae-in administration. No one could hear direct answers about state affairs during his five-year term. But Yoon ushered in a new era of directly exposing his positions on many issues just like his American and Japanese counterparts do.

Yoon’s governance also is being stabilized. The off-track relations with the United States has noticeably improved thanks to the expansion of the military alliance to economy and technology. Fortunately, South Korea’s relations with Japan are also showing signs of improvement. Yoon’s economic approach is also trustworthy. He repeatedly emphasizes the importance of revitalizing the market and reenergizing the economy led by the private sector. Even after the landslide victory of the People Power Party (PPP) in the June 1 local elections, Yoon was not elated. Instead, he warned about an economic typhoon already shaking the country.

They are all promising signs. But a bumpy road lies ahead, as seen in the never-ending provocations from North Korea, a critical shortage of supplies in the wake of the Ukraine war, the pandemic and the deepening U.S.-China conflict, as well as the soaring energy and food prices. With high inflation, stock prices plunge while interest rates soar. Households who borrowed money from banks to buy their homes are suffering from mounting interest rates. After the U.S. dollar has emerged as the sole safe asset, the heated cryptocurrency market has collapsed. They pose a serious risk to the Korean economy.
President Yoon Suk-yeol answers questions from reporters waiting for him at the doorstep of the presidential office in Yongsan on Wednesday morning. [JOINT PRESS CORPS] 

But alarming is the new president’s lopsided appointments of people from Seoul National University and the prosecution — as well as males — as top officials in his government. Such appointments based on a narrow pool of talent were not made even under the authoritarian governments decades ago. You can hardly find similar cases elsewhere. In the United States and Japan, Harvard graduates or Tokyo University graduates — and prosecutors — do not monopolize officialdom.

Such a narrow pool of talent carries risks. After Fidel Castro set up a Communist regime in Cuba in 1961, the U.S. launched an ill-fated invasion of the country from the sea in the Bay of Pigs. Some 1,500 Cuban exiles trained and financed by the CIA penetrated Cuba, but the invasion ended up with more than 100 casualties and over 1,100 captives. At that time, many of the core aides of U.S. President John F. Kennedy were elites from Harvard University. Surprisingly, however, no one talked about the recklessness of the operation. Based on the episode, Yale University Professor of Psychology Irving Janis wrote his famous book “Victims of Groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes.”

President Yoon stresses the importance of hiring “competent people.” The problem is that the standards for his appointments are most likely subjective. Prosecutors he met during his 26-year career at the top law enforcement agency may have been capable. As they passed the tough bar exam after studying hard, they could have higher intelligence, endurance and sincerity than others. Given Yoon’s sole career in the prosecution, he would certainly trust his former colleagues.

But you can hardly ignore the ecological fallacy theorized by W. S. Robinson in 1950. For instance, you can make a mistake if you try to generalize biological features of organisms living in a pond after looking into a certain one. A big frog in a small pond can be a small one in a bigger pond. The same applies to recruiting people. You must not make light of the diversity factor. Yoon’s heavy reliance on a small pool of talent has certainly led to a series of fiascoes in naming the minister of education, in particular.

In an environment dominated by groupthink, differing voices cannot be heard due to peer pressure. President Yoon must not forget that the Moon administration’s botched policies can largely be attributed to the groupthink among the self-justified former democracy fighters in the government. We wonder if such a small group of people directly connected to the president can weather the economic and security crisis the country faces. What the president needs most now could be devil’s advocates if he really wants to correct his appointment style.
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