Summitry inflation and a lost opportunity

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Summitry inflation and a lost opportunity

Lee Hyun-sang

The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

In Korea, the liberals were criticized for their inability whereas the conservatives were blamed for their corruption yet capability. But that was reversed in the last presidential election. The Democratic Party (DP) stigmatized People Power Party (PPP) candidate Yoon Suk-yeol as the icon of inability, pointing to the former prosecutor general’s lack of political career to become the next president. In response, the PPP dug up a plethora of immoral acts by DP candidate Lee Jae-myung for the March 9 election. The ongoing battle between the two rivaling parties still revolves around that theme.

After electing Lee as its leader despite his defeat in the presidential election — and regardless of his indictments on charges of election law violations — the DP is waging a full-fledged war on President Yoon beyond the level of political battles. Its target this time is Yoon’s trip to London to pay tribute to Queen Elisabeth II, who passed away after 70 years on the throne. The attack was led by Tak Hyun-min, the protocol secretary of former president Moon Jae-in. As if to demonstrate his expertise in protocols, Tak found fault with the signing by President Yoon on a left-hand page of the condolence book for the queen. After watching the strange developments in Korea, the British ambassador in Seoul tried to calm the heated domestic battle, saying, “Attending Her Majesty’s funeral is itself an act of paying tribute to her.”

The problem is such substandard attacks are working in Korea. A bigger problem is that the presidential office and the conservative government provide fodder for attacks by opponents. Usually, a president’s trip overseas complement his or her mistakes in their own country. But Yoon’s visits to the UK and the U.S. following his earlier trip to Spain for NATO Summit failed to show such effects. The political novice’s international debut was instead eclipsed by frequent diplomatic fumbles, which cannot be blamed on the DP alone.

Yoon’s omission of paying his condolences to the queen could have been averted only if his aides had paid more attention in advance. Given the 60-kilometer (37-mile) distance from the airport to the Westminster, chaotic traffic jam and complicated protocols required for over 200 foreign dignitaries, Yoon’s aides had to hurry. But they did not. That constitutes a dereliction of duty by Yoon’s protocol and diplomatic team.

Another problem involves the promotion of Yoon’s meetings with Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in New York. Yoon’s presidential office made the mistake of making official a “summit” with Kishida even before the details were fixed. Due to its rush to a summit, Korea lost its poker face, the ABC of diplomacy. Meanwhile, Japan took leadership by leaking the possibility of a botched summit to Japanese media. As a result, Yoon had to beg for a summit with Kishida. (Yoon actually went to an international conference being hosted by Kishida, even without an invitation). Diplomacy is an extension of domestic politics. A leader cannot earn trust from the public if he or she loses dignity.

Yoon has a 48-second meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week. Yoon’s presidential office elaborated on the achievements he made from that short meeting. But I wonder how effectively Yoon could have delivered his deep concern about the U.S. discrimination on Korean electric vehicles during that ephemeral encounter. Given the midterm election in November and surging inflation in America, the prospect of the results of a Korea-U.S. summit was not that bright from the start. Nevertheless, Yoon’s presidential office tried to inflate expectations for a summit. The 48-second talk resulted from Biden’s shortened schedules, but the burden must be borne by Yoon.

People who stress morality of the people around a head of state often say, “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.” Julius Caesar used the phrase to explain why he divorced his wife, Pompeia, who was suspected of having an extramarital affair with the notorious profligate Publius Clodius. But there is a dramatic turning point in the story. Caesar did not blame Clodius. Instead, he helped the young and promising patrician get elected as a tribune, suggesting the impregnable level of his political skills.

To escape from the frame of incompetency, such skills are needed. You can call them an ability to embrace enemy. Politics is about finding realistic means to realize ideals.
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