[Column] To be loved or to be feared

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[Column] To be loved or to be feared

Choi Hoon
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Whether a parent or a head of a company, a person in a supervisory position must constantly wrestle with the conundrum of whether to be merciful towards a misdeed of those under his or her responsibility or demand full obedience from them not to allow disorder. It could be the question of “to be loved, or to be feared.” Many of us who have been taught to be compliant from young age would choose the first to get things done. But the rule may not work in the world of politics where winners take all and strive to keep power.

President Yoon Suk-yeol also appears to have pictured himself as a leader who could be loved. “The competition has ended,” he said after winning the presidential election in May. “We now should be one. I will respect the legislature and serve the people in cooperation with the opposition.”

Shortly after becoming the leader of the majority opposition Democratic Party (DP) despite his defeat in the presidential election, Rep. Lee Jae-myung vowed to “seek solutions during a meeting with the president.” He also said, “If the new government is headed towards the right direction, I will heartily help it and the PPP.”

But they were all words.

The country had been bisected due to divisive policies of the Moon Jae-in administration. Yoon who has to reverse most of the past policies — income-led growth, nuclear reactor phase-out, higher minimum wage and real estate measures — could never be loved.
“We have waited long enough. We can no longer tolerate illegal acts,” Yoon said in response to the strike led by the combative Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and to the persistent political offensive from the DP. The dialogue mood no longer is possible as the prosecution closes in on DP head Lee over the Daejang-dong development scandal and other bribery cases. President Yoon’s rhetoric towards increasing nuclear threats from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un turned more hawkish. His resoluteness drew cheers from the conservatives, elevating his approval rating to over 40 percent for the first time in polls. The war of nerves between the PPP and DP will likely heighten next year ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections.

Renaissance political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli had his answers to the question of whether to be loved or to be feared. In “The Prince,” he wrote, “It is better to be feared than be loved, if one cannot be both” because “men, by nature, are ungrateful, fickle, dissembling, anxious to flee danger and covetous of gain.” In times of remote danger, they are willing to take risks for their prince, but if the danger is real, they turn against their prince. Therefore, one must have faith in his power as dilly-dallying in decision-making can bring about greater evils, he argued. Such human nature can hardly be denied unless one is a truly virtuous.

All Korean presidents wish to be loved. Moon Jae-in pledged to serve “even those who have not supported me.” Park Geun-hye promised her government would be a trustful companion to the people. “There cannot be me and you, us and them. I will sincerely serve the people,” said Lee Myung-bak. Roh Moo-hyun also vowed to use unity as the stepping stone. “I myself will start dialogue and compromise with the opposition,” he said. But the temptation of resorting to the fear factor erupts in the face of strong opposition.
President Yoon Suk-yeol presides over a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Yongsan, Dec. 13. [JOINT PRESS CORPS] 
During his five years in office, President Moon arrested more than 200 presidential secretaries and ministers under the two former conservative presidents, including one who had been impeached, and sent five to take their own lives. The demoralized clan had to see their downfall. Impeached president Park during her reign also showed little tolerance for opponents. She disbanded a far-left party, outlawed a teacher union, published a uniform history textbook and closed the Kaesong inter-Korean industrial park in North Korea. Critical voices in the party — like Yoo Seong-min and Kim Moo-sung — were expelled. A minister who proposed a mass resignation of the Cabinet after the Sewol ferry sinking was scorned to keep his mouth shut. A senior executive of a media outlet which fell out of favor with the governing party had to resign in disgrace. Despite his gentle appearance, Moon may have been most feared. He disallowed opposing voices and seated in public offices only the people he trusted. The president has strong power to crush the incompliant by mobilizing the prosecution, police, tax office and fair trade agency.

Machiavelli’s advice to exploit the fear factor in governance targeted those rulers who could keep to power forever unless a revolution or assassination occurred. If people were fed and kept safe, they would tolerate with a fearful ruler. But that cannot apply today to our five-year single presidency. The feared — from Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan to Park Geun-hye — all had been unfortunate in the end. Moon’s luck is yet to be known.

Machiavelli added, “The new ruler must determine all the injuries that he will need to inflict. He must inflict them once and for all.”

The president would have his own way. If performance of cruelty is necessary for the country, not himself, he could make the choice. But I hope it won’t be repeated over and over. “To be loved or to be feared” is really a conundrum.
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