When President Yook Suk-yeol took questions from reporters on his way to work Tuesday, his morning press briefing appeared to have resumed after being suspended for just a single day due to COVID-19 concerns.
It was understandable that the press thought so. The presidential office early Monday announced Yoon’s daily in-office briefing sessions would be suspended indefinitely due to the spread of COVID-19 in the presidential press corps.
On Wednesday, however, the presidential office clarified that Yoon’s signature briefing session was again temporarily suspended and would resume when there is no additional outbreak of COVID-19 in the press room.
An official from the presidential office said, “As we notified earlier, we took a step to avoid a gathering of many people for the safety of reporters and all presidential staff after COVID-19 cases were confirmed.”
Yoon’s short talk with reporters Tuesday was just his greeting followed by questions from reporters, not a formal restart of his in-office morning briefing, the official said.
Yoon’s impromptu interaction with reporters Tuesday -- albeit at a distance over infection worries -- was in effect still one of his morning in-office briefings, now widely called “doorstepping” by the media and the presidential office.
Regardless of what it is called, there is no doubt that Yoon’s daily communication with reporters without prearranged scripts has provided an important channel to share his ideas about key state affairs -- an impressive routine that no president before him has tried out.
There has been a spate of disputes, however, over Yoon’s comments, some of which came off as raw and unrefined. For instance, when asked about the decline in his approval ratings, Yoon flatly said it was “meaningless.” Since the poor showing of approval ratings was related to what went wrong with his personnel choices, his flat disregard of the crucial gauge of the public sentiment was not received well.
In addition, instead of admitting that something was amiss and promising to address the public concern, Yoon deployed a misguided rhetorical strategy, asking reporters to compare his personnel choices with those of the previous administration. Yoon’s reasoning is that his choices are better than those of the previous administration in terms of qualifications, but his picks, lopsided to former prosecutors, appeared no better in the eyes of the public.
These unfiltered and provocative comments revealed Yoon’s undiplomatic side, inevitably inviting a wave of criticism. Moreover, since Yoon’s morning briefing session was held daily, the frequency of related disputes hitting the media outlets and social media went up accordingly. Some critics argue that Yoon should stop daily briefings and instead go for a weekly or monthly session to minimize side effects. But others claim that holding a daily session with reporters is desirable in many respects.
Indeed, Yoon’s daily briefings -- though suspended at present -- are far more desirable than what former President Moon Jae-in did during his term. Moon took office in 2017, pledging to better communicate with people than his predecessor President Park Geun-hye, but Moon ended up with fewer than 10 formal press conferences during his five-year term and rarely held individual interviews with the domestic media.
Given that former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun held about 150 press briefings and conferences each, Moon was a leader who did not want to freely talk with the public and the press.
Compared with Moon’s closed communication style, Yoon’s willingness to share his views directly with the press deserves credit. Even though some of his comments could spark controversies, Yoon’s decision to hold such daily sessions is an appropriate course of action to clarify his views and responses toward pressing issues.
Considering the positive impact, other heads of state agencies are now encouraged to hold press briefings more frequently. And it is hoped that Yoon will improve his briefing style over time and think a bit more before sharing his opinions on sensitive issues when his morning briefing resumes.