Where is justice, Mr. President?

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Where is justice, Mr. President?

Choi Min-woo

The author is a political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Despite the approval rating dip to below 30 percent, the governing party’s loyalty to President Yoon Suk-yeol remains intact. On cue from the presidential office, the People Power Party (PPP) turned against acting chief Rep. Kweon Seong-dong. Kweon was obliged to humble himself. It was President Yoon who ridiculed the suspended party head for aiming the “gun internally,” but the liability fell on floor leader Kweon for carelessly exposing the private conversation to the public. His floor leader title also may not be safe. Even the ringleader of Yoon’s inner circle can be so easily abandoned. Even under the emergency committee system, the PPP will surely pay heed to what the president wants to do.

President Yoon has so far kept up a brave face over his sinking approval rating. But he may not understand why he is so unpopular. As he has not done anything gravely wrong, he could be uncomfortable about the media for raising a fuss about every word he says. But Yoon must not forget his fragile beginning. He has won the election by the razor-thin margin of 0.73 percentage, or 250,000 votes. In other words, more than half of the eligible voters did not approve of him from the beginning.

It was the opposite in the case of the last conservative, President Lee Myung-bak, who beat the ruling party candidate by an overwhelming margin of 5.3 million votes in the 2007 presidential election. When including the 3.56 million votes of independent conservative candidate Lee Hoi-chang, the conservatives defeated the liberals by a landslide that year. Despite the overwhelming support, Lee’s approval rating fell to around 20 percent just six months into office due to nationwide protests over the mad cow scare related to U.S. beef imports. The approval rating of the president can crash from one slip.

Looking back, Yoon achieved the relocation of the presidential office from the Blue House which housed the president since the founding of the government, an attempt no president in the past could have dared. He pushed ahead with the plan before taking office despite strong opposition from conservatives and liberals. The unconventional style also created a new tradition of the president casually speaking to reporters on his way to work in the morning.

Such scenes with the president could not have been imagined only a few months ago. The sweeping victory of the conservative party in the June 1 local elections held shortly after the presidential election also would have added to his confidence. But over-confidence could have brought about misjudgments. The prosecutor-turned-president scolded the police twice for causing “a grave disruption to national discipline.” When over-recruitment of prosecutors to government offices raised controversy, the president retorted that past liberal governments also had relied on civilian lawyers with liberal backgrounds.

When a candidate for education minister raised controversy about her drink-and-driving record, Yoon said the candidate excelled over any cabinet member in the previous government. Although he has not shied away from making honest opinions, his straight-talking had been too rough as the top state executive.
President Yoon Suk-yeol presides over a Cabinet meeting at the Government Complex Seoul, Tuesday. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE] 

The fundamental reason for his plunging approval rating could be disappointment in Yoon. He was elected president just a year after stepping down as prosecutor general and just nine months into politics on the credentials from his avowal that he does not serve a person or the sitting power. The slogan about not serving a person meant he does not follow unjust orders from the higher hierarchy for private interests or becomes influenced by private connections.

But he has proven to be different from his words. The assistant minister of the National Intelligence Service in charge of planning defended Yoon’s wife Kim Kun-hee at the court in the case of stock manipulation related to Deutsch Motors. Financial Supervisory Service Gov. Lee Bok-hyun had been under Yoon in special investigation division in the prosecution. The personnel policy secretary, personnel secretary, general affairs secretary and personal secretary all came from the prosecution who had worked closely with Yoon. The wife of the personnel affairs secretary to the president accompanied the first lady to the NATO summit in Madrid, but the presidential office does not find any problem with it. Having connections with the president meant moving up.

The public has had enough of personalized governance over the last 10 years. Park Geun-hye let her private friend Choi Soon-sil mess with her power, while Moon Jae-in clamped down on the prosecution for aiming at people on his side. Those who voted for Yoon chose him for his promise to restore governance by law. Rule by law should not just literally mean compliance with the law, but also should mean a respect to the spirit of law and exemplary self-discipline. Yoon must ask himself if loyalty was really what he had wanted.
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