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[Editorial] Misguided choices

Yoon administration must realize why personnel disputes disappoint the public

July 20, 2022 - 05:30 By Korea Herald
President Yoon Suk-yeol’s daily in-office briefing set a fresh record for Monday, lasting for less than a minute. The main reason was that Yoon, when asked about a new personnel dispute, ignored the question and left without commenting.

It is regrettable that Yoon refused to directly tackle the question during his signature morning briefing. Avoiding tough questions from reporters may not be what the public wants from Yoon’s these morning briefings, which are supposedly an open communication channel with the media.

Monday’s extremely brief session was also in sharp contrast to what Yoon did when he started his daily briefings. He used to take four or five questions and give detailed answers. Even though some of his comments were controversial, his impromptu communication style was well received.

Yoon, unfortunately, appears to be changing his briefing style following a string of personnel disputes, which are said to have dragged down his approval ratings in recent weeks. According to a survey by Realmeter from July 11-15, Yoon’s approval rating slumped to 33.4 percent, while a negative perception of his management shot up to 63.3 percent. Other surveys also show that his approval rating continues to go down.

On Tuesday, when asked about the continued decline in approval ratings, Yoon said, “If (the administration) knew the reason, any administration would have handled the issue by now.” His latest response on the approval ratings was clearly different from his stance on July 4, when he said such ratings are “meaningless.”

The main reason behind Yoon’s changing stance seems to be linked to the deepening disputes over his personnel choices. The latest one involves a junior official surnamed Woo in the presidential office, who was found to be the son of one of his acquaintances.

More troublesome is that Woo had donated 10 million won ($7,620) to Yoon during his presidential campaign, and his father was then a member of the National Election Commission, a position blocked from giving political donations. Critics claimed that Woo’s 10 million-won donation was his father’s, and his job in the administration was the reward.

The presidential office, however, denied any wrongdoing, while critics point to the latest dispute as a case in which Yoon’s focus on “fairness and common sense” is allegedly compromised.

Appointing public officials from the pool of Yoon’s private acquaintances may be technically legal, but offering a job in return for a political donation in a questionable circumstance is another matter.

Particularly damaging is what Kwon Seong-dong, the interim chair and floor leader of the People Power Party and the closest aid to Yoon, said about the issue. On Friday, Kwon told reporters that he had long known Woo, and had “pressured” another aide to Yoon to install Woo in the presidential office.

Worse, Kwon said he felt sorry about Woo becoming a ninth-level official, the lowest rank in the civil service. Kwon also downplayed the status of ninth-level officials, saying that they are getting slightly more than the minimum wage -- a gesture that is seen to justify his influence-peddling. Kwon originally put pressure on the aide to make Woo a seventh-level official.

Kwon’s remarks kicked off a flurry of angry responses from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, the media and social media. In fact, the administrative position in the presidential office that Woo secured through Kwon’s pressure is said to offer far more chances for promotion or transfer to other state agencies after contracts expire, compared with other contract-based public positions. Regardless of level, official public positions are one of the most favored among young job seekers in Korea’s extremely competitive employment market.

The fiery reactions to Kwon’s remark are just part of the broader public disappointment toward Yoon’s controversial personnel picks, many of which appear far removed from his earlier pledge to restore “fairness and common sense” in Korean society.