[Column] The growing price of maintaining the president’s ego

Posted on : 2024-05-28 16:47 KST Modified on : 2024-05-28 16:47 KST
Even conservatives who run interference for Yoon are recognizing that his administration is coming with a price
President Yoon Suk-yeol makes eggs at a luncheon for presidential office correspondents held on the office’s front lawn on May 24, 2024. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol makes eggs at a luncheon for presidential office correspondents held on the office’s front lawn on May 24, 2024. (courtesy of the presidential office)

By Kim Young-hee, executive editor

President Yoon Suk-yeol looked happy as a clam in his apron as he hobnobbed at a luncheon held on the lawn of the presidential office in Seoul. As he made the rounds through the 20 tables seating over 200 journalists in the presidential office press corps, he was repeatedly heard saying “Let’s do this more often,” and “Have you gotten anything to eat yet?”

Every year, journalists in the US are invited to dine with the president for the White House correspondents’ dinner, where they listen to the president crack jokes and guest speakers sharpshoot the country’s leader and his administration. The adoption of such a tradition by Koreans isn’t a bad thing. But both the timing and the substance were off. 

The correspondents’ luncheon took place a few days before a National Assembly revote on a bill to assign a special prosecutor to investigate the death of a Marine corporal during a flood rescue mission and the alleged subsequent cover-up — a bill that Yoon originally vetoed. This was also one day before civic groups and opposition politicians were scheduled to hold a major protest against the Yoon administration. And he invites journalists to a dinner where they have to slurp kimchi jjigae without asking any relevant questions? His unexpected remark about a potential increase in funding for journalists to receive training abroad was a bit off-putting. It’s like he thinks recent reports about South Korea’s declining press freedom are referring to another country. 

The president’s behavior and demeanor since the general election in April are almost beyond comprehension. After laying low amid controversy, the first lady made her first public appearance in months. This was just a few days after the country’s prosecutorial leadership had been reshuffled. People are talking behind his back: “Looks like the president’s only policy is just watching out for himself and his own.” His conservatives allies, who had placed their hopes in a candidate that was not “indebted” to the political world, are surely losing sleep these days. 

Yoon recently appointed Jeong Ho-seong, a former presidential aide who coordinated Park Geun-hye’s communication with Choi Soon-sil, as a presidential secretary. This came as such a surprise that even a columnist at a conservative paper called this decision an “Andromeda” moment — so far out of the realm of reason it may as well belong to another galaxy. 

Jeong’s cell phone, which was seized by prosecutors at the time, contained 236 recordings lasting 35 hours and 40 minutes, revealing the stark reality of influence-peddling in the Blue House. What is there to admire about someone supposedly so smart if he remained passive and silent on Choi Soon-sil’s interference in the government? Did Yoon think highly of such “loyalty” expressed by Jeong?
The appointment of former Vice Justice Minister Kim Ju-hyun, who has a history of bad blood with Yoon over a scandal involving the National Intelligence Service’s manipulation of public opinion, as senior secretary for civil affairs is also a mystery. The appointments of such individuals are doing nothing to strengthen conservative support.
The careless appointments of officials, as demonstrated by the rumors surrounding the possible appointments of Park Young-sun as prime minister and Yang Jung-chul as his chief of staff, as well as the under-the-table talks with professors Hahm Sung-deuk and Im Hyuk-paik before Yoon’s meeting with Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung, shows that Yoon Suk-yeol is far from an orthodox conservative politician.
And then there’s the damage to the credibility of government agencies that were used to rationalize the president’s veto. On the day of the veto of the bill for Cpl. Chae’s case, the statements made by the Ministry of Justice in a press release were immediately exposed as sophistry and lies through fact-checking by the press. The statements were written by a member of the Ministry of Justice’s office of legal counsel. How ironic that a president who claims to harbor nothing but love for prosecutors would make junior prosecutors cook up such cockamamie materials.
The gridlock in policymaking and enforcement has gotten out of hand. Since the reversal of a proposed ban on overseas purchases, ministries have been on the sidelines, withholding policy announcements. While Lee Jae-myung’s sudden announcement that he’s ready to make a deal on pension reform at the 11th hour of the 21st National Assembly could certainly be seen as a political maneuver, it is absurd to use that as an excuse to kick the first step to reform down the road.
The ruling party is facing a tough situation as is, with no election in sight, so how many people are really going to believe the claims that structural reforms are going to be passed one after the other during the 22nd National Assembly?
Conservative commentator and journalist Jeong Kyu-jae harshly criticized the ruling party’s decision to abandon the opportunity to reform pension parameters, claiming that it did so to block the passage of the bill to assign a special counsel to Cpl. Chae’s case. He wrote on Facebook, “The price of maintaining President Yoon Suk-yeol is too high.”
When, on the eve of the revote on the special counsel bill for the case, reports broke about Yoon’s apparent fit of rage when briefed on the investigation into the Marine’s death last year, some ruling party lawmakers immediately grew defensive, asking what was wrong with the president losing his temper. There’s some truth to their logic, but only a little.
The question is whether the president’s anger led to unlawful orders or external pressure on the investigation into the case. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a boss who gets angry without fully understanding a certain situation will not allow dissenting opinions, and cause the downfall of their organization. 
I recommend that People Power Party lawmakers watch the documentary on Cpl. Chae’s death recently released on the Hankyoreh’s YouTube channel, HankyorehTV. Newly acquired recordings show how the rage of the 1st Marines Division’s former commander, Lim Seong-geun, changed the circumstances on the field.
You can also listen to a recording of the day of the incident from the commander of the 7th Marines Squadron, who squarely faced responsibility for his failure to protect his men. What is partisan about revealing the truth behind unjust deaths and listening to the testimonies of honest soldiers?
The public used the April general election to exhort the People Power Party to become a party that speaks up to the president, rather than rolling over for him. How the ruling party votes on Tuesday will determine the future of Korea’s conservatives.
The ruling party knows full well that a united front to defeat the bill will only increase the momentum to assign special counsels to investigate the Cpl. Chae case and the Kim Keon-hee case in the 22nd National Assembly.
Cpl. Chae’s case would not have blown out of proportion if it had been handed over to the police for the investigation and to determine whether charges were warranted, as Col. Park Jeong-hun was initially authorized by Lee Jong-sup. The same goes for the special counsel cases. The lesson here is, don’t try to solve a small problem with a disproportionate solution. Chances are, that disproportionate solution will only blow up in your face. 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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