President, not prosecutor
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
One of my longtime friends, a former prosecutor, confessed, “When I was a prosecutor, whose full attention was concentrated on investigations, I often thought how I could interrogate and detain a passerby whenever I encounter someone.” Almost all prosecutors have an obsession to find out if someone is guilty or not. The sense of justice of a prosecutor to help protect the everyday life of ordinary people surely deserves respect.
But there is also a dark side. When the heavy steel door of a special interrogation room is shut loudly, a suspect faces fear given various interrogation techniques prosecutors use, such as threatening and persuading, to make a suspect helpless. Some prosecutors become so arrogant that they think they can determine whether someone has committed a crime or not, no matter who the suspect is. Fortunately, the friend, now a lawyer, regretted the evil practice of his former profession and returned to a nice person worrying about human rights and safety of suspects.
We can still trace the scent of a prosecutor from President Yoon Suk-yeol. That helps explain why we see many problems during his interviews with journalists at the doorstep of the presidential office in Yongsan. He started the doorstep interview to show that he won’t hide behind his aides. In the course of the interview, he often uses unrefined language, a legacy from his long career as a prosecutor. It is understandable. Yoon was chosen as a presidential candidate by the conservatives and became president in one year just for the single reason that he as a prosecutor had resisted unjust pressures from the previous Moon Jae-in administration. The way he says and behaves cannot be changed overnight.
As a result, he is suffering the winner’s curse. That’s the problem. Just two months after he took office, his approval rating plummeted and the opposition Democratic Party (DP) is floating the idea of impeaching him. This absurd crisis was caused primarily by the dichotomous way of thinking he could not overcome.
“Prosecutors, who always think about how to prove criminal allegations, cannot understand the complex world and contexts beyond what’s right and wrong,” said a former prosecutor general. The perception of a prosecutor is incompatible with politics and national governance, which require abilities to resolve conflicts and integrate a country.
If so, President Yoon must not rely on prosecutors and investigators to get over his limit. Nevertheless, he appointed key allies from the prosecution to top posts in the Cabinet and presidential secretariat. They now handle officialdom, including personnel, intelligence and financial affairs.
Though the administration is required to open a path to a new future, it is still controlled by the people with DNA to investigate the past. After facing criticism for his lopsided appointment style, Yoon said, “In the previous administration, members of the liberal Minbyun overwhelmingly occupied top posts.” Could a public servant refuse to yield to the people?
Yoon was arguably the most successful prosecutor in Korea’s history. He successfully investigated and indicted two former presidents, heads of chaebol and a wife of a Moon confident and sent all of them to prison. Whether it be current or former powers, he defeated them. On the face of a sitting president, he declared, “My loyalty is not for a specific person.” No doubt Yoon was the best prosecutor and the hero of our times.
But now, he is not a prosecutor general who defeats villains, but a public servant who must sacrifice himself to serve the nation. He must protect ordinary people suffering from the tsunami of high prices and high interest rates. He must completely forget about his past success as a prosecutor.
Yoon also must reshape the relations with rival political parties. Corruption and irregularities should be investigated, but politically-motivated probes, if there are any, must stop. Instead of fighting with a political group in a sense of deprivation after its election defeat, the president must concentrate on resolving the crisis of the people. So it is critical to cooperate with the DP, which occupies the majority in the legislature. Yoon must meet with DP lawmakers whenever he has an opportunity, and have candid discussions to seek their cooperation. The DP has already declared, “We are good at fighting.” When a political war breaks out amid the crisis, people’s livelihoods will only get worse.
Fortunately, Yoon is changing. We welcome his recruitment of Byun Yang-gyun — former policy chief in the Roh Moo-hyun Blue House and the architect of his economic policy — as economic advisor. It was a signal that Yoon will seek wisdom of all parties. Byun’s policies of deregulation and economic innovation modeled after the theory of Joseph Schumpeter will help the Yoon administration much. That was possible because Yoon was selfless. The decision to restrain his wife’s public activities was also appropriate.
At the same time, Yoon must radically change his operation of the government based on his former allies from the prosecution and politicians whose only goal is winning power. If Yoon changes, his presidential office in Yongsan will no longer be a subject of ridicule.
Yoon’s words and acts may seem high-handed, but if we interpret them in good faith, it may be a way of a direct and candid communication. He was a man of principle, who did not care about outside pressure. With such a reputation, an executive of a chaebol once informed the prosecution about the leader’s alleged corruption and requested that Yoon investigate the case. And as expected, Yoon successfully probed those allegations and took the leader into custody. It was difficult for Yoon to change his style as it had long been the driving force of his success.
Yoon and the people are like a couple who married without a long period of courtship. They are getting to know each other during the honeymoon. The public needs to show an understanding of the rookie president’s special circumstance. But above all, the president must quickly forget about his past as a prosecutor, an obstacle for a successful presidency.