Doorstep interviews should continue

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Doorstep interviews should continue

Lee Jung-min
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Former president Park Geun-hye issued a public apology 33 days into office. But her apology on a series of appointment flops backfired. “As the head of appointments, I feel very sorry for causing distress to the people. I will do my utmost to toughen our screening system.” The problem was not just the dry and ceremonious tone of the two-sentence apology. The 17-second apology was made under the name of her chief of staff — and briefly read by her spokesperson. The public wondered if Park really needed to apologize through someone else.

Two months later, another bizarre incident took place. Yoon Chang-joong, the spokesman for the president, was implicated in a sexual harassment scandal while accompanying the president on a state visit to the United States. Announcing his dismissal, the chief communication officer apologized “to the people and president.” The public was outraged why the president was getting the apology instead of herself apologizing for the misbehavior of her employee. Park finally apologized, but at a meeting with her senior secretaries. Why?

Former president Moon Jae-in was no different. People just became less angry as they got used to disinterested presidents. When a court overruled a government action and ordered then-prosecutor general Yoon Suk-yeol back to office in 2020, President Moon apologized, but through a spokesperson’s written briefing.

When the conservatives and liberals competitively held massive rallies — the former on Gwanghwamun Square and the latter in Seocho-dong — over a prosecutorial probe on the family corruption allegations against Cho Kuk — then justice minister and a symbolic figure to the ruling party — Moon nonchalantly dismissed them because “it is routine for people to express different opinions.” He even “thanked” the protesters for sparing their precious time and money to express themselves. While citizens were warring each weekend, Moon shared his opinion through a meeting with his aides. The public had been confounded to later learn that Moon was actually “indebted at heart” to the justice minister, as he said in his New Year’s press conference the following year. Although the press room was inside the presidential compound — and at just a three-minute drive from his office — Moon held only one press conference a year. In her four years in office, Park held press conference three times and Moon five times during his five-year term.

They could argue their message was delivered anyway. But sometimes, formality can overrule the content. Many IT companies in Korea now address their bosses and colleagues in nicknames or by English names without their titles. Work culture has become more equal and less hierarchic as a result, helping breed creativity, connectivity and efficiency. Insincere apologies cannot be pardoned. Such practices originate from the high handedness of presidential power. If heads of state forget that their elected power was given by the people, they lose touch with the people. They must answer when the people question their thoughts, philosophy, appointments and policies. If they forget that, soulless apologies through spokespersons prevail. Only a monarch considers people as the subjects for command and not to serve.
President Yoon Suk-yeol answers questions from reporters waiting for him at the doorstep of his office in Yongsan, June 23. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

President Yoon Suk-yeol taking questions from the doorstep of his office is quite refreshing as it helps raise public expectations for new political culture. Yoon has answered such “doorstep questions” on his way to work 21 times so far. Whether the president tries to keep his promise to not hide behind aides or tries do everything contrary to his predecessor, his spontaneous responding to reporters can be deemed as a dramatic development nearly on par with his decision to relocate the presidential office to Yongsan. By exposing himself to the press, he can avoid distancing himself from the public sentiment. President Yoon admitted that he had prepared for some of the questions, but “often missed.” The comment suggests he will continue.

But whether the practice can be maintained remains to be seen. Anyone would wish to avoid hard and uncomfortable questions and criticisms. Yoon also could find it hard pretty soon. Then, the next president could forgo the practice.

But if President Yoon fixes some of the problems of his signature doorstep interview and develops it into a tradition, he could leave a meaningful legacy. Each president had ambitious slogans — Moon with “income-led growth,” Park with “creative economy,” and Lee Myung-bak with “green growth.” But all the legacy ended with their five-year presidential term.

The tradition of doorstep interview can narrow the gap between the president and public.
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