Let politics — not law — speak

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Let politics — not law — speak

Lee Hyun-sang
The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Given the volatility of the “doorstep interviews” President Yoon Suk-yeol has had with reporters since May, the one he had last Monday attracted my attention. On his way to the presidential office at Yongsan, the president did not make any comments about the last-minute settlement three days earlier of a two month-long strike at Daewoo Shipbuilding & Maritime Engineering (DSME). Even without questions from journalists, he should have said, “Fortunately, the strike ended. I hope the hardships of contract workers in Korea will be resolved in the future.”

Contract workers for the major shipbuilder under control by creditors agreed to a 4.5 percent increase in their wage — instead of the 30 percent they demanded initially — and a paltry bonus for holidays. Aside from their illegal occupation of worksites, their sit-down strike has triggered growing public concern about the poor treatment they have received — and a sharp gap in wages between contractors and their subcontractors. President Yoon stressed law and order in battling any illegitimate acts by unions, but it could have been better if he had demonstrated his understanding of the nonsensical dual wage structure between contract and subcontract workers

George Lakoff — an American cognitive linguist and the author of “Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t” — applied the “strict father” model for conservatives and the “nurturant parent” model for liberals. While a strict father emphasizes individual discipline and responsibility, a compassionate parent sets his or her perspective at a child’s eye level for empathy. The Republicans and Democrats also rally their support based on such distinct images.

The image the Yoon administration seeks to build can be found in his catchphrase for law and principle. His repeated attacks on the bending rule of law under the liberal Moon Jae-in administration helped Yoon win the last presidential election. Befitting a head of state respecting the rule of law, Yoon said he had waited long enough, and pressured the workers to end the strike. In the face of a group action by senior police officers to protest a decision by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety to create a bureau for police administration inside the ministry, Yoon defined the group action as a “serious violation of national discipline.” Such a draconian image of the president could be compatible with the strict parent model of conservatives.

However, the president clearly missed one thing. A strict parent does not demand abiding by the rules only. As Lakeoff argued, the image of a strict father is often accompanied by a sense of responsibility toward family members, consideration for the weak and self-sacrifice as the head of household. Only then can the rule-based order function. Children follow their father while complaining of his stubborn ways, as they know the values their father demonstrates more than anybody else.

What would the image of the Yoon administration look like? Can you see any sense of self-sacrifice or responsibility that should make a pair with strict rules? People could feel betrayed upon seeing a president brushing off the recruitment of acquaintances by the presidential office after highlighting such decent words as fairness, rule of law, and common sense. What would he say about a heated internal battle over election trophies after winning a razor-thin victory by a 0.73 percentage points? It all evokes the image of regressive conservatism.

The language of a president who still has the image of a prosecutor only fuels an identity crisis. His rhetoric such as “stern punishment” or “shaking national foundations” only stirs up antipathy from the public. His deep-rooted adherence to legal logic is no exception. After being asked about the right-wing’s rallies against the former president near his post-retirement residence in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang, the incumbent president said, “Even a protest in front of the presidential office is being allowed.” That’s a lawyer’s language, not the president’s. Politics can help narrow such a gap. If politics overrules law, corruption follows, but if law dominates politics, conflict is unavoidable.

An image a government wants to create from the public is different from an image the public recognizes. President Yoon must accept reality if he really wants to recover his approval rating which has dropped to the 20-percent range.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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