Three questions my Japanese friends ask

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Three questions my Japanese friends ask

Kim Hyun-ki

The author is the Tokyo bureau chief and rotating correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

In Japanese politics, an approval rating in the 30-percent range for the leadership should be a bad sign. If the rating goes down to the 20-percent range, the alarm bells are ringing, and if it plunges to the 10-percent range, that’s a call for an exit. Former prime ministers Yasuo Fukuda (19 percent), Taro Aso (18 percent), Yukio Hatoyama (17 percent) and Naoto Kan (14 percent) resigned after their ratings sank under 20 percent.

Approval ratings in Japan determine the term of a prime minister. A recent survey showed Japanese people highly regarded late prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was recently assassinated, because he had served long (having been in the office for 8 years and 8 months). Abe overcame the international ridicule that the face of a Japanese leader changes each year in summits. If Korea was under a parliamentary system, how many times would the leadership change? Korea should be thankful for adopting a five-year-term presidential system.

The Japanese are also sensitive to the approval ratings of Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in the 20 percent range only three months after taking office, as it can mean a weakening of the momentum for improvements in its relations with Korea. At the same time, recent political developments in Korea reaffirmed my conviction that it will not be easy to improve their relations under such stark differences.

I have been asked several questions about the recent developments in Korea by my acquaintances in Japan. They were curious to learn if a president in Korea really sends personal text messages to the acting head of the governing party. (In Japan, the prime minister is head of the ruling party. But it is rare for the prime minister to exchange personal text messages). They also wondered whether lawmakers can use smartphones during assembly sessions. (The upper house has banned lawmakers from carrying smartphones since 1995 — and the lower house since 1996 — while a legislative session is underway). The Japanese also wondered if a governing party in Korea can set up an emergency committee by prioritizing “political judgment” over the party constitution. (Given the Japanese obsession with laws and procedures, they could not understand the flexibility and impromptu nature in Korean politics).

President Yoon’s unusually low approval rating during the honeymoon period has stoked keen interest overseas. The opposition put the blame on first lady Kim Kun-hee and two key lawmakers Chang Je-won and Kweon Seong-dong, both close friends of the president. Pollsters unanimously point to the president’s poor appointments and a heated internal battle evolving in the governing People Power Party (PPP). They all could have played a part. From the public perspective, President Yoon may have brought his own fall with his repeated slips of the tongue and unrefined language in his doorstep interviews he has had since taking office in May. The president may have thought lightly of a three-minute exchange of dialogue with reporters covering the presidential office in Yongsan. The 28th U.S. president Woodrow Wilson had been an excellent orator. He famously said, “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, twodays; if an hour, I am ready now.”

Even for a great orator, it is hard to deliver a message in short and concise language. Too many fumbles could bode badly for the president. No one would mind if he has the doorstep interview with journalists once a week.
In a Q&A session in the National Assembly on July 6, personal text messages exchanged between President Yoon Suk-yeol and People Power Party (PPP) floor leader Kweon Seong-dong were captured by cameras of the press. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

The public also would have been disappointed by the president for lacking dignity. A presidential candidate and president are different. As a candidate, straight-talking could have looked refreshing. But the public has expectations of the president. Instead of keeping to his style, Yoon should pay more heed to other opinions. He must listen more and talk less, show respect towards the opposition, and keep doubtful aides at bay. He must change the way he talks and walks, and what he wears, if necessary. As an approval rating reflects public sentiment, it must not be dismissed. Public support can give weight to presidency on international stages. All presidents in any country must humble before approval rating. We hope for a change in the president.
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