[Column] President Yoon’s big challenge

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[Column] President Yoon’s big challenge

Jaung Hoon
The author is a professor of political science at Chung-Ang University and a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Readers of this 860-word article would have to spare about 5 minutes of time and concentration out of their day for a full read. In an age of abundant short-form contents (shorts) — readable or viewable in minutes or seconds — a person committing to reading is hard to find these days, let alone fully comprehending a text this long. The act of intensive reading, which has been crucial for everyday lives for the modern mankind for two centuries, is gradually diminishing amid the excitement over ChatGPT and floods of Instagram Reels and shorts.

Still, there always will be readers and writers, like me, who will take time to read and write. Short thrills come and go, but what lasts are the act of reasoning that demands greater toil.

The traditional readers who value the longer and deeper context can ask how the Yoon Suk Yeol administration will go down in the history of Korean democracy. Their wish will likely converge to something like this: a government that adheres to law and order by standing up to the whims — and ignorance — of the masses and the untouchables like the militant labor unions and civic organizations. As a former prosecutor for his lifetime until being elected president last March, President Yoon would welcome such a straight portrayal of his achievement as head of state in the history of Korean democracy.

However, despite his hope to be remembered as the president upholding law and principles, Yoon faces a big hurdle before him. It is the temptation to use his power to appoint his friends, including former colleagues in the top law enforcement agency, to lead the country. All Korean presidents elected through civilian votes came under the temptation to exploit almighty presidential power during their five-year single term. The first step into this wrong path is their disregard for the procedures and transparency.

Yoon will soon face the test. The national convention of his People Power Party (PPP) to elect the next head will be the first test on the selfish ambition. The circumstantial evidence is abundant from the sudden change in the rules of the race, which led to the withdrawal last month of a promising candidate probably to help another candidate, a loyalist to Yoon, win the chairmanship of the PPP.

Regardless of the results of the convention on Wednesday, the future relationship between the president and the governing party will likely weigh over Yoon’s political assets and crusade to govern the country based on the rule of law. A governing party, either united or contentious, can be both challenging for the president. The history of Korean politics is full of cases where a united governing party turned its back on the president shortly after parliamentary elections. Needless to say, a party in an internal feud can be a huge burden for the president.

So, how should President Yoon carve his relationship with the PPP? He must not attempt to domineer the party or neglect it. Striking a delicate balance between the two opposite ways may not be easy for a head of state who has lived a life of upholding clearly-written law and regulations. But I believe that if Yoon keeps flatterers at bay and listens to the “whispers of history,” he may find a solution to navigate his relationship with the PPP smoothly.

Whispers of history? As the history of Korean democracy shows, there is no clear answer to the relationship between a president and a governing party. Even career-politicians like presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung had hard time keeping up amicable relations with the governing party once they became the president. Again, presidents should not be too hard or soft on their grip on the governing party.

President Yoon Suk Yeol, center, participates in a ceremony on Taxpayers’ Day, March 3, at COEX, Seoul. The Korean characters in the background, from left to right, say, “Fair tax system,” “Honest tax payment,” and “No waste of tax funds.” [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE] 

“Some push and some pull” in a democratic context can be advice from the past experiences. An appropriate level of tensions between a president and the governing party is quite different from the world of law, as there is no set of clear rules or division between what is good and bad. The presidential leadership must be exercised to be able to draw undivided support from rivaling parties particularly when civilian livelihood is at stake.

At the same time, President Yoon must give political room for lawmakers of his own party. He must respect their space of making factions, competing with one another, or novices trying to draw attention. All this can be hard for a president who always puts law and order first over individuality.

I hope the Yoon administration won’t fail. I desperately hope that it could add the breakwater of the rule of law to the Korean democracy which is either fractionalized or feeds on the victory of majority votes. If Yoon fails, so would the foundation of law and order and the Maginot Line of Korean democracy.

President Yoon must solve the conundrum to save himself and the Korean democracy. He must be flexible in exercising the presidential leadership by distinguishing the delicate differences of the rule of law, the rule by politics and the rule by appointments. The “give-and-take” relationship with the PPP will test his presidency from now. 
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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