Prosecutor general no longer

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Prosecutor general no longer

Shin Yong-ho

The author is a senior editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

After being inaugurated in 1993, U.S. President Bill Clinton complained to a friend that being president was harder than he thought. He didn’t think the media would be so important or that he would have to worry about what was on the evening news. That account is from Bob Woodward’s “The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House.” Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol must sympathize with Clinton. In fact, Clinton’s approval rating fell to 36 percent in four months and negative ratings reached 50 percent. Around that time, Clinton’s judgment was not clear, and his aides were inconsistent. The first lady’s influence was so strong that Hillary’s consent was needed on main issues.

Still, it didn’t take long for Clinton’s approval ratings to recover. He worked with Congress to pass a budget bill to reduce the deficit, which was considered a big political victory. Moreover, as Clinton worked on economic recovery, his ratings surpassed 50 percent by September. His plummeting approval rating at the beginning of his term may be a comforting sign to Yoon, a former prosecutor general.

Most Koreans know why Yoon’s ratings are so low. A Gallup Korea poll shows that he made wrong personnel decisions, lacks experience and competence, and doesn’t care about the economy and people’s livelihoods. Critics say that Yoon’s arrogant attitude and unfettered shows of emotion, disputes among his cronies and a lack of ability to manage the message have taken a toll. Yoon does not have a solid support base, sending his approval ratings into freefall. People still think the president is more of an attorney-general than anything else.

But Yoon has changed. On July 4, he said he didn’t care about ratings, then vented his frustration on July 19 by saying, “I would have resolved it if I had known the cause.” At a cabinet meeting, he ordered ministers to strengthen communication with the public. “Become a star minister,” the president urged. He seems to have the will to resolve problems one by one now that he knows the causes. He can find a clue if he accepts criticism from outside.

Some criticisms should be prioritized over others. Yoon must go back to basics and talk to opposition parties to compromise. He repeatedly said he respects the National Assembly. We had high hopes when he said in May, “A partnership like between Churchill and Attlee is needed more than ever,” referring to the coalition during World War II in Britain. Yoon met with former National Assembly speaker Park Byeong-seug shortly after the March 9 presidential election and said he would always respect parliament. However, no one has seen him communicating with the opposition properly.

In fact, it is hard for Yoon to work when his own party — the People Power Party (PPP) — is a minority. In his inauguration speech, President Kim Dae-jung, who came from a minority party, said, “I sincerely ask the opposition for cooperation. I will consult on everything. Please help me at least for one year.” He is not the only one. Presidents Kim Young-sam and Roh Moo-hyun always had compromises in mind. That’s what Yoon should do. That’s the essence of politics. To get what he wants, he must give what others want. As Max Weber defined it, asserting one’s own claims is the “politics of conviction” while reaching a destination through compromise is the “politics of responsibility.”

Looking at the current state of affairs, I wonder if cooperation is possible. The PPP may find it hard to endure a majority party’s offensives and criticism. But they should not blame the opposition. Any damage from paralysis of the National Assembly is felt by the people foremost. The approval ratings of a president who compromises with the opposition for the sake of the people will not go down.

Yoon needs to listen to advice from former lawmaker Yoo In-tae, a senior member of the opposition. “If the president plays his role, gives the National Assembly what should be given and takes what he should take, then the approval ratings will rise soon,” he said. If the opposition ignores his extended hand, the people will make a judgement. A prosecutor general is responsible for administrative affairs, but a president must engage in politics. Politics is all about dialogue and compromise.
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