The presidential pat on the shoulder

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The presidential pat on the shoulder

The author is a political news team reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Recently, there has been a particularly eye-catching gesture by President Yoon Suk-yeol. He pats people’ shoulders to cheer them up. The “shoulder encouragement” to the Minister of Public Administration and Security Lee Sang-min on his way to the Southeast Asia trip on Nov. 11 was interpreted as a clear political message.

The Democratic Party called for his replacement for mishandling of the Itaewon disaster, and opinion polls show a majority of respondents supporting his resignation.

But the president, who has personnel decision authority, held out his hand and tapped Lee’s shoulder. It is only natural that politicians interpret it as “a clear sign of trust in his closest staff.” Sure enough, when Yoon returned from the trip overseas, he comforted Lee and said, “You did a great job.”

It is not the first time that President Yoon created controversy by patting the shoulders of his allies. After giving a speech on next year’s budget during the plenary session of the National Assembly on Oct. 25, the president patted the shoulder of Rep. Chang Je-won, a People Power Party lawmaker, and whispered on his ear.

It clearly stood out from how he only shook hands with other members of his party. Chang joked to reporters the next day, “I must have looked pitiful because I only stayed in my district.” Chang seemed noticeably brighter after staying distant from the core of power for a while.

Patting shoulders to show closeness seems to be a habit of Yoon’s.

When he was in the prosecution, he always patted the shoulders of his juniors. On Oct. 15, 2021, during the presidential primary, Yoon casually patted the shoulder of former lawmaker and current Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo, who was running against him in the primary race.

Conservative online communities shared a video with subtitles saying, “Stop it now!” In an interview with a media outlet, Hong said, “It is not an appropriate action for a junior to do that to me. I just smiled calmly.” Yoon’s attitude led to controversy. When Hong was a senior prosecutor, Yoon was a junior.

Allan Peas, a communication expert, analyzed that 83 percent of human communication consists of non-verbal elements such as gestures and facial expressions. It is also an unwritten rule in politics that every hand gesture and every sigh in public seen by the entire nation through the media is considered a message.

Intentional or not, I wonder who will get a shoulder pat from the president in what situation. On the day Yoon patted Minister Lee’s shoulder, he said, “My shoulders are heavy” as he boarded the plane. It is not too much to expect a heavier sense of responsibility from those who got the presidential pat on the shoulder.
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