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[Editorial] Controversial remote work

Yoon’s decision to stay at home while downpour hit nation touches off disputes

Aug. 11, 2022 - 05:30 By Korea Herald
On Monday, when South Korea was slammed by a record downpour, President Yoon Suk-yeol said he noticed some apartment complexes submerged by flash flooding on his way home after work. Unlike other high-ranking officials who returned to their offices to handle the disaster, Yoon continued to ride back to his house in Seocho-dong, Seoul, and stayed there all night. 

It is deeply regrettable that Yoon decided to handle the apparently dangerous situation that was threatening citizens from home, taking briefings from key officials over the phone -- instead of getting back to his presidential office in Yongsan where the National Center for Crisis Management is located -- where he is originally supposed to be when a major crisis takes place. 

The torrential rainfall that inundated so many parts of the Seoul metropolitan region Monday was the worst in 115 years, paralyzing the subway system, knocking out power in pockets of the city and leaving 10 people dead and six others missing. From Monday to Wednesday, a total of 16 people were confirmed dead or missing, and 2,500 homes and buildings were flooded, according to the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.

Even as of Monday evening, the record rainfall was serious enough to warrant a change of work mode from a commuting president to a leader in charge of supervising responses to a large-scale national disaster.

Yet Yoon made the choice to work from home, touching off a firestorm of criticism from a number of citizens and politicians from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea. On social media, many users were particularly upset about the fact that he kept on heading back to his house even though he saw heavy rain pummeling residential areas in Seoul.

Opposition party members Tuesday slammed Yoon’s remote work, claiming that they had repeatedly pointed out what is called “leadership vacuum” problems would occur when Yoon went ahead with a plan to move the presidential office from Cheong Wa Dae to the current Yongsan office.

In fact, Yoon’s new residence in Hannam-dong, just five minutes away from the new presidential office, is being renovated, but work has been delayed by the continued torrential rain. Critics blamed Yoon’s hasty decision to move the presidential office even before the completion of the official residence for his failure to show up at the National Center for Crisis Management in time. Flood-induced traffic congestion near his house Monday appeared to be a factor.

Some of the attacks from Democratic Party members might come off as unfair to Yoon and his supporters since he did work remotely from Monday evening to early hours Tuesday, giving instructions to officials over the phone.

With Yoon’s approval ratings dipping below 30 percent even before the storm, officials from the presidential office desperately defended his decision Tuesday, arguing that his remote work was based strictly on the “manual” that was previously agreed by state agencies involved. His decision to stay at home was also based on the possibility that his visit to the National Center for Crisis Management could slow the disaster response process due to security and other related preparations.

But Yoon’s alleged concerns about putting pressure on field officials as a result of security preparations needed for a presidential visit runs counter to what he announced on July 5 when he unveiled a plan to go out and preside over an emergency economic and public livelihood meeting each week -- a cumbersome task for his security team and officials who have to prepare such a meeting.

Rep. Youn Kun-young of the main opposition party asked why Yoon opted to manage a national crisis situation from his house in an apartment complex, even though there was a full-fledged crisis management center, and expressed concerns about what would happen if the same situation repeats in the face of a make-or-break national crisis.

It is not the first time that Yoon was embroiled in a dispute over his penchant for managing state affairs through phone calls. Just last week, he did not meet US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was visiting Seoul, in person because he was on summer vacation and opted for a phone call with her.

On Tuesday morning, Yoon belatedly held a meeting with officials and then made a visit to a semi-basement home in Seoul’s Gwanak Ward, where three family members were found dead after it was flooded by rain, with an entourage of officials and security guards. The presidential office released publicity photos showing Yoon at the site, which is now under attack as inappropriate for a tragic accident, on social media.