Last week, I had a pleasant walk with friends along a short trekking course that opened recently around the former presidential mansion. My smartphone walking counter app tracked about 15,000 paces in the two-hour trip, which included a snack of makgeolli and a sundae on the wooden floor of the Okhojeong pavilion near the eastern end of the route. I have to wait to the end of this month to go inside Cheong Wa Dae because I could not make an earlier online reservation.
The view of Seoul from the Baekakjeong resting place right behind the compound was great even in the light morning mist. The rocky Inwangsan is to the right, the low Naksan to the left over the green area of the palace Changdeokgung and the Namsan Tower rises across the downtown of rather irregularly laid-out streets and buildings. The new presidential office in Yongsan was not in sight as it is situated between Namsan and the Han River.
Time passed fast after the Yoon Suk-yeol administration set sail a little over a month ago with both the new ruling People Power Party and opposition Democratic Party of Korea being engaged in a post-election tuning-up, which produced internal noises, particularly in the Democratic Party over putting the blame for the loss of power after a single term. The president has neither completed forming his Cabinet nor chosen the name for his office.
As a result of the office relocation, the president has to make a convoyed trip every morning from his Gangnam apartment to Yongsan-gu. On the steps to his office, Yoon now has to face the “chore” of entertaining reporters’ questions about unlimited subjects, which never happened with his predecessors.
If presidential spokeswoman Kang In-sun, herself a veteran newspaper reporter, could guess what might be brought up by her former colleagues, she certainly had little time to prepare the president for questions such as when he would give former President Lee Myung-bak special amnesty. The president at first rejected the notion but corrected himself the next day. “It is unprecedented that a former president should remain in jail for (nearly) two decades,” he said.
The other day, one of the reporters, who are now accommodated in the ground floor of the new presidential office building right below the chief executive’s space, presented the president with what is now one of the most serious questions to concern the officialdom: Why do you fill high positions in the new administration with so many public prosecutors, especially those with whom you had the chance of working together?
The president’s answer was not surprising, but it was disappointing. “Don’t you remember that members of the Minbyun group (an association of progressive lawyers to which former President Moon belonged) had nearly monopolized high-ranking offices in the previous administration?” he retorted. The president not only acknowledged bare confidence in his former colleagues, but showed no intent to depend less on present and former law enforcement officers in his governance.
To justify himself, he referred to practices in the United States where “government attorneys” are liberally hired to fill positions of importance. Then he went on to appoint a former close aide in the prosecution as chief of the Financial Supervisory Service. Lee Bok-hyun has become the 15th Cabinet minister -- a vice minister-level official who was picked up directly from the prosecutorial service. His credentials include a bachelor’s in economics and a certified public accountant license. The opposition Democratic Party has hit out at the advent of a “republic of prosecutors.”
Yoon has reason to focus on loyalty for his appointments because a large number of political appointees under the Moon Jae-in administration would remain in office well into Yoon’s rule until the expiration of their usual three-year tenures. These people cannot be persuaded into premature retirement, which could constitute illegal coercion.
Yet, within a few weeks of Yoon’s inauguration, all service chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force were replaced along with a few other four-star generals at top commands; the Air Force chief had more than a year left until his legal retirement. Six senior officers of the National Police Agency were promoted to superintendent general to replace those who were elevated to the rank during the Moon administration. One of the six will succeed National Police Director Kim Chang-ryong when he retires in July.
Top posts in the prosecution have been reshuffled under the direction of new Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, who had survived the storm of “prosecution reform,” which meant a purge of uncooperative prosecutors under Moon’s rule. Now the table is being completely turned in favor of those previously disadvantaged. Chief prosecutors who were loyal to the former president have been banished to the Legal Training Center as research fellows. They would now be considering whether to retire voluntarily or rest in the shade for years to come.
So, the entire official community is in transit with changes of power here and there. This time, the scars run deep from the former leftist ruling group’s bitter acts of clearing the traces of the past conservative administration, causing the new governing forces’ hasty moves for payback.
President Yoon has the ready answer of “in accordance with law” in his daily Q&A with reporters at the doorstep to his office, where he has to tackle the big problems of rising prices, labor issues and the nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. To deal with these and other tasks successfully, the new president needs to save his energy and fervor from being squandered in politics, which should in no way include vengeance for past wrongs.
He should keep in mind that he was the prosecutor general in the Moon Jae-in presidency and was for some time instrumental in the disoriented process of law enforcement, until he began resisting the ruling group when they exercised power to protect their own interests. With that awareness, he had better play the healer of wounds from the past misrule rather than pose as an angel of justice flying into a political battleground.
Reviewing the first month of Yoon’s presidency, we are a little uneasy first of all at the way higher offices are being filled. Whatever happened these days, it was good to have a southward view of the beautiful capital over the blue tiles of the former presidential office. Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald and former managing editor of the Korea Times. -- Ed.