A step closer to gaining public trust
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Yoon Suk-yeol visited a semi-basement apartment in Sillim-dong, southern Seoul, on Aug. 9, where three members of a family of four were killed by a flash flood the previous night. A video footage of Yoon, looking into the room from outside the window, was aired by major media. It was appropriate for Yoon to rush to visit the site of the accident, but he didn’t seem to be embracing the tragedy wholeheartedly with complete sympathy.
I asked one of Yoon’s accompanying aides why the president had not entered the apartment. And I was given a surprising answer. Yoon had actually crossed the police line and walked down the stairway in the dark despite the objections of his aides, and his security guards were in panic. While Yoon was entering the apartment, he slipped and almost fell, and his shoes and trouser were soaked by muddy water, his aide said.
A semi-basement apartment has poor outside light and ventilation. The family must have endured mold and pests. But it was the only affordable home in Seoul for a woman in her 40s, who was supporting her old mother, elder sister with developmental disabilities, and her young daughter. It was a heaven for the poor family who had no other option. And it was also a hell.
A president entering the space of sorrow was the evidence of solidarity and responsibility that he feels. Yoon proved that he was presidential.
In Leo Tolstoy’s short story “Where Love Is, God is,” a semi-basement room is the sanctuary of miracles where a shoemaker named Martin Avdeitch meets God. After losing his wife and son, he was about to give up his life. Then, Martin heard the voice of God telling him that he would visit him the next day. With the only window in his room, he waited and watched out his window, looking at the feet of passers-by, but God did not come.
While he was waiting, Martin invited an old man cleaning up the street in cold weather, a woman with a baby and a hungry child stealing an apple and offered them food and tea. At one night, he heard a sublime voice telling him, “This is me,” with the three figures appearing one after another. In any time period, God visits us in the form of the weakest and saddest human.
When he was a university student, Yoon offered his new coat to a street vendor on the first day of wearing it. Does he still think that a heaven cannot be seen without teary eyes? If so, he would meet the lonely and wounded God on earth and save each other.
Fortunately, Yoon promised to “not miss a single breath of the people” when he held a press conference marking his 100th day in office. It was the humble language of a public servant, not a prosecutor who once said he was not loyal to a person. His words represented a reflection for his failed appointments and chaotic state affairs.
Without a script, he answered 12 questions during the press conference. Critics said he failed to show a blueprint for state affairs, but his determination and philosophy were confirmed. The secret was his endless discussions and communications with government ministers. “Yoon receives reports until late night and has heated discussions,” said a presidential aide. “Each minister meets exclusively with the president once or twice a week.”
Different from the presidencies of Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in, when the Blue House had all powers, ministers are increasingly becoming powerful. The president is also quickly understanding policies. As Yoon is not accustomed to politics, he seems to focus all his energy on state affairs. Although he has become demonized by critics, people knows he is not seeking private gains.
Yoon accepts his Chief of Staff Kim Dae-ki’s uncomfortable and candid advice without hesitation. Resolving the violent strike at Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering without mobilizing the police and restraining his wife’s activities were the subsequent result.
The problem is that his People Power Party (PPP) is outnumbered by the Democratic Party (DP) in the National Assembly. In order to reform the pension, labor and education systems, push forward new housing supply projects and North Korea policy and improve Korea-Japan relations, cooperation from the DP is critical. But the DP has started a methodical defense to protect Rep. Lee Jae-myung, who is sure to be elected as its new chairman, from any criminal indictments.
For the sake of the people’s livelihoods, Yoon must resolve the dilemma of bringing to light the previous administration’s corruption and seeking cooperation with the DP. In a recent dinner with legislative leaders, Yoon said political parties must join forces to overcome hardships. He found the only way out from the current crisis.
Yoon experienced a plummeting approval rating during the early months of his presidency. But he is doing his best with a presidential attitude and he is recovering the people’s trust. He must listen to opinions of oppotents more if he wants to succeed in cooperative politics and state affairs. Yoon must completely abandon himself. Then, he could reduce his reliance on his confidants and allies from the prosecution.