Yoon must be reborn

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Yoon must be reborn

Lee Ha-kyung

The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

President Yoon Suk-yeol must feel that recent criticism of him is unfair. He could not have imagined that a casual, private remark following a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden would scupper his entire overseas trip. Choosing to contradict reporting by MBC, Yoon said he has no memory of mentioning Biden in the remark at all.

In June 1999, President Kim Dae-jung faced a similar situation. He returned to Korea after a meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, concluding diplomacy with four powers, including the United States, China and Japan. Although he expected plaudits back home, he had to apologize for a scandal over a businessman allegedly giving expensive clothes to the wives of several key members of his administration, including the prosecutor-general. Although Kim initially denied the allegation, calling it a “witch hunt,” Culture Minister Park Jie-won persuaded him to issue a public apology. After rival politicians’ fierce attacks, a National Assembly hearing and an independent counsel investigation took place, they concluded that it was a failed lobbying activity. The only new facts uncovered were that the celebrity fashion designer Andre Kim’s hometown was Gupabal and his real name was Kim Bong-nam.

But the public was furious that wives of top officials and businessmen had visited a luxurious boutique during the foreign exchange crisis, whether the lobbying activity was a success or not. Although President Kim had nothing to do with it — and the criticism must have felt unfair — he apologized to the public and overcame the crisis.

The starting point of President Yoon’s problem is his remark in New York. That is an undeniable fact. So the situation will be resolved when Yoon offers an apology. “The president is confused about the beginning part of his remark,” Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Dae-gi said. If so, how can Yoon win against the Democratic Party (DP) and media? Actually the public is not upset by the remark itself, but by his pretending that he did nothing wrong.

Biden once said, “What a stupid son of bitch” to a Fox News journalist, but he telephoned and apologized one hour later, and the incident was dismissed as if nothing had happened. If Yoon apologizes and the DP continues to attack him, it would trigger a backlash.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, left, shake hands with Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee Jae-myung — the DP’s presidential candidate in the March 9 election — at a ceremony commemorating the 74th anniversary of the founding of Korea’s military on October 1. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

The DP had gone too far. It unilaterally passed a motion demanding the dismissal of Foreign Minister Park Jin over the stumbles on the foreign trip and even set up a committee to address what it called a diplomatic disaster. In fact, former president Moon Jae-in’s diplomacy had its nadirs. During a state visit to China, he had to eat meals alone without hosts. When visiting the Czech Republic, its president was not even in the country. In Malaysia, Moon gave a greeting in Indonesia’s language. During the ASEM summit in Brussel, he missed the group photo session. The DP has no right to point out Yoon’s mistakes.

The deterioration of Korea-Japan relations was a real diplomatic disaster by the Moon administration. A settlement to compensate Korean wartime sex slaves struck by the Park Geun-hye presidency in 2015 led to the first-ever official apology by the Japanese prime minister. But the Moon administration threw it away and fanned anachronistic anti-Japan sentiments. After Seoul and Tokyo faced a new dispute over the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling for compensation for wartime forced labor by Japanese companies, National Assembly speaker Moon Hee-sang, a senior member of the DP, sponsored a bill to proposed a realistic solution. But after the bill failed to convince President Moon, it was scrapped.

The Yoon administration is different. He did his best to persuade Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — who had served as foreign minister in 2015 and helped forge the comfort women agreement — to revive the Moon Hee-sang proposal to help restore deadlocked Korea-Japan relations. Foreign Minister Park Jin paid a visit to the forced labor victims and kneeled before them to persuade them.

The mood in Japan changed after their efforts. In his meeting with Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, Kishida said, “Japan is aware that a solution that does not include [Japanese] plaintiff companies won’t be easy to get the [Korean] people’s backing.” We need to recognize that the Yoon government is making progress.

The global economy is having tough times. Warnings have come that Asia will face another foreign currency crisis. In this time of self-survival, the Korean economy is facing the curse of globalization. North Korea recently legalized its right to a preemptive use of nuclear weapons. Former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton said North Korea is threatening the U.S. to withdraw its troops in Korea and Japan if it does not want to face a nuclear attack. Can Yoon deal with an internal crisis amid the global crisis? He must appeal to political circles to stop their domestic battle.

Yoon also said that the more troubled the economy, the more the government must do to support the ordinary people and the vulnerable class. He is right. Then and now, a good economy is good politics. Political parties must stop their civil war and unite to overcome the economic crisis. To this end, Yoon must apologize for causing unnecessary trouble to the public with his inappropriate, private comment. The people will feel relieved by seeing the president’s humility and the DP will stop their malicious attacks.

A president is no longer a politician who fights to win power. He must reconcile with his enemies and save the country. “The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die,” said Friedrich Nietzsche. Yoon must be reborn as president. A head of state with heavy responsibility to save the country from crisis has no right to fail. Yoon must open his heart and overcome the storm. That is the only path on which we can survive.
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