[Column] Going off script to tackle big problems

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[Column] Going off script to tackle big problems

Seo Seung-wook

The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s first review session of national agenda priorities, which took place on Thursday, was aired live for 156 minutes, 56 minutes longer than the scheduled 100 minutes. The event was held town-hall style, as 100 panel members had been selected from the public. To make sure that the event would not be boring, some spicy points were added. The president’s rapport with confidant Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon was one of the highlights.

“The fact that drug prices are going down means the government has failed to crack down on the crimes. I am embarrassed,” Yoon said. Han, then, replied, “When we start a war now, we can stop it.” It was a flawless move just like the winning moment of the Korean team against Portugal when striker Son Heung-min assisted Hwang Hee-chan’s goal in the Qatar World Cup. Their conversation about the decision to restore the prosecution’s authority to investigate drug-related crimes, which had been taken away during the last administration, was also perfect.

The event seemed like a well-choreographed drama. The only flaw was that it was too smooth, as there was no villain or a conflict. Questions by 14 panelists and answers by the president and government ministers were so gentle that it looked like a well-planned sparring.
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks before opening the first conference on his administration’s national agenda at the guest house in the Blue House, Dec. 15. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

Some media outlets criticized the event for lacking any presentation of specific plans on labor, education and pension reforms the president has so ardently championed. But the president made clear his strong determination to push the three reforms without fail. The event was better than his earlier emergency economic conference in October. As a result, even a progressive critic for a broadcasting company gave as much as 80 points to the president’s event last week.

The live-air meeting was an opportunity for both Yoon and the public to resolve its thirst for communication. It’s been a month since Yoon’s impromptu press briefings on his way to the office stopped after the presidential office’s extreme conflict with MBC over his hot-mic moment in New York. The president had 61 sessions of casual interviews with the press before reporting to work from the next day of his inauguration. That symbolized the new era of his presidential office in Yongsan. In total, Yoon spent three hours and 23 minutes for the so-called doorstep interviews. Each session took three minutes and 20 seconds on average.

If the live-covered event on Thursday was a drama, his doorstep interviews were documentary. Yoon’s off-the-cuff answers sometimes stirred political controversy, but some welcomed his morning interviews. After he stopped the press sessions, his approval rating went up. Pundits attributed his declining approval rating to the unscripted interviews he would have with the press.

During the recent national agenda review, the president showed his determination to complete the three reforms even if they are not popular. But once he makes public the details of the reforms, the establishment and the Democratic Party (DP) will fiercely resist. As Rep. Joo Ho-young, floor leader of the governing People Power Party (PPP), said during the show last week, the only way for the president to silence the resistance will be ti gain overwhelming support of the people. To this end, Yoon needs more than a carefully-scripted sparring with gentle panelists. Without intense and uncomfortable debates with journalists and opponents, it will be impossible for him to start those reforms. As Yoon confronted the last administration alone as a prosecutor general, he must use that strong will again to persuade the centrists and his critics.

“When the presidential office is moved to the Ministry of National Defense building, I will prepare a large press room on the first floor,” Yoon said when he was the president-elect. “During the communication, I will be beaten often. Only when I am strongly attacked, the establishment will be destroyed and reform can be done.”

With such a strong determination, there is no reason for the president to be afraid of any communication whether it is a 156-minute drama or a three-minutes-and-20-second documentary. More important than questions such as when he will resume the casual interviews or where he will move the press room is how to transform his instincts to directly tackle a problem to push forward those three major reforms. People voted for him because of the guts he resolutely demonstrated before an uphill battle in the past.
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