Lessons from Yoon’s predecessors

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Lessons from Yoon’s predecessors

Koh Hyun-kohn
The author is a senior editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

President Kim Young-sam’s early months in his presidency were remarkable. He was not hesitant to push forward reform measures. He, however, did not brandish his sword recklessly. Instead, he meticulously weighed public sentiment and picked fights he could win.

On Feb. 27, 1993 — exactly three days after he took office — President Kim made public his wealth. It was 1.778 billion won ($1.4 million). He, then, announced a war against corruption and a campaign to restore ethics in our society. High-ranking officials resisted. Six lawmakers from his party either resigned, abandoned their party memberships or were expelled. But Kim’s campaign had a solid justification, and he had set a precedent by making public his wealth. No one could stop him. A bill that requires senior public officials to disclose their assets was passed unanimously in the National Assembly. The people were excited.

On March 8, 1993, President Kim abruptly replaced Army Chief of Staff Kim Jin-young and Commander of the Defense Security Command Seo Wan-su. It was the first step to dismantle the military fraternity Hanahoe. Over the next three months, 18 generals belonging to the exclusive club were removed. The fraternity was a force threatening democracy. There was a public consensus that the group in the military should be disbanded. And Kim grasped the sentiment. He moved quickly to dismantle Hanahoe.

It was not an impromptu measure. Kim later recalled in his memoir, “I had studied the inside of the military since the days of the military regimes. When I was a presidential candidate, I seriously thought about a plan to remove them.”

In a public opinion poll conducted in April that year, Kim, not a celebrity, was ranked as the most favorite person of the teenagers. The people finally escaped from the long shadow of the military regime and enjoyed the era of civilians controlling the government.

On Aug. 12, 1993, President Kim introduced a real name financial transaction system — a task that had been discussed many times since the Park Chung Hee government. But it was delayed repeatedly because of the aftermath it would cause on the economy. About one third of the nation’s financial transactions were made under bogus or borrowed names at the time.

President Kim believed that the real name transaction system was in line with the zeitgeist of eliminating black money in our society. He was convinced that it would be harder to introduce the system in the later days of his presidency.

As it was about completely changing the long-held practices of financial transactions, the establishment fiercely resisted. Unwanted side effects were also expected as small business owners could suffer in the process. But Kim pushed it forward. And the introduction of the real name financial transaction system is remembered as one of his most iconic accomplishments. For Korea to become an advanced country, someone must do the job at some point. It was a battle with a righteous cause.

The three successes of President Kim during his early presidency share some common points. The president took the initiative. There was national consensus — and Kim had a clear justification. Without them, they won’t be easy. If the president is overly confident and moves hastily, he will certainly face a failure.

The beef import negotiation between Seoul and Washington during the Lee Myung-bak presidency was a classic example of a failed leadership. It was the Roh Moo-hyun administration that had actually started the negotiation. The government promised to the United States in multiple times that it would strike a deal to open Korea’s market to U.S. beef imports. But President Roh delayed the talks and handed the matter over to the Lee administration.

On April 18, 2008 — just 50 days after Lee took office — the government struck a deal with the U.S. “I had to make a tough decision,” Lee later wrote in his memoir.
President Yoon Suk-yeol reports to work in the presidential office at Yongsan, Tuesday, a day before his 100th day in office. [JOINT PRESS CORPS] 

It was a bad choice. Even if there would be yet another delay, President Lee should have ordered a process to listen to the people’s opinions. However, as he rushed to make an accomplishment during the early days of his presidency, Lee fell into the trap of the “mad cow disease scare” maliciously created by the political opponents.

President Lee also became unpopular by pushing forward projects that the people did not agree with. The so-called English-immersion education plan disturbed the parents across the country. Students resisted the government’s plans to start school earlier and conduct additional classes at night. The people also could not understand why the government was pushing forward the grand canal projects.

After his plunging approval rating dealt a serious blow to the government along with the massive protests against his decision to open the beef import market, Lee radically shifted his policy to “shared growth” and “centrist policy friendly to the people.” They were more bad moves. Lee missed precious opportunities to push forward pragmatic deregulation and reform measures he had championed during the campaign, and his “shared growth” policy hardly made a progress.

The two former presidents were both extremely strict with themselves and both workaholic. Kim got up at 5 a.m. each day and jogged 4 kilometers. After reading newspapers, he had a breakfast with guests at 7: 30 a.m. to discuss state affairs.

Lee’s aides recalled that they had to keep their mobile phones at all time, even when they were taking shower, as the president called them anytime. Both Kim and Lee worked fiercely, but Kim’s approval rating was 83 percent 100 days after taking office, while Lee’s rating was 21 percent around the same time.

What made the difference? The difference was their perspectives in selecting the target of reform based on public support and a clear justification. The difference was their political sense on making a judgement on what to do and when. Not everyone can be called a political veteran.

Wednesday marks the 100th day in office for President Yoon Suk-yeol. So far, his presidency is similar to that of Lee Myung-bak. As his perspective and sense of politics were weak, President Yoon had lost score. He makes decisions too easily and has a high-handed image. Ever since he decided to relocate the presidential office to Yongsan — and until the abrupt announcement of a plan to reduce the school entrance age — Yoon appeared bossy.

Whether you support his plan or not, you become skeptical about the timing. Why is he doing this right now when there are so many other urgent tasks?

It is also undesirable to see the president and a minister to decide an incredibly important issue exclusively between them. It gives an impression that Yoon is ignoring the people. Only within 100 days since taking office, Yoon has created rifts with the women’s community by announcing a plan to shut down the gender ministry; with the police by announcing a plan to create a police administration bureau inside the Ministry of the Interior and Safety; with the people from the Jeolla region and those outside the power elites by only hiring the power elites to top posts; with the parents by announcing a plan to lower the school starting age; and with young male voters by purging Lee Jun-seok. Yoon appeared to be fighting the entire country. And his pitiful fights have no consensus, no justification and no chance of victory.

President Yoon must seriously study former president Lee’s press conference on June 19, 2008, held amidst the massive public protests against his decision to open Korea’s beef import market to the U.S.

“No matter how urgent it was, I should have paid attention to how the people will react to it, but I didn’t,” Lee confessed. “I am deeply reflecting on my mistakes.” President Yoon can also learn from the motto of the first Roman emperor Augustus who demanded, “Festina lente,” or “Hurry slowly.”
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