Kim Dong-ho The author is an editorial writer of JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings were bound to fall. Every policy from minimum wages to real estate, nuclear power phase-out, prosecutorial reforms and North Korean issues caused controversy. He pushed the public’s patience to the limits.
Of all of his follies, Moon’s appointments were the most disastrous. He kept to a narrow pool of people characterized by absolute loyalty. Everyone knows how much people matter in an endeavor. Private companies vie for talented people. Only those who prove their ability and resourcefulness will make to the managerial or executive level. If their performances aren’t good enough, their titles must be surrendered. Otherwise, the viability of a company and everyone else on its payroll will be at risk.
Moon’s hiring skills would be unacceptable in an average company. For nearly four years, he has relied on a revolving door of a select group within his inner circles. His government was inevitably guided by a narrow-sighted and collective mindset. As many as 26 ministerial-level appointments were made without endorsements from the opposition party. You cannot expect diverse opinions from such a government. Kim Kwang-doo, who vice-chaired the presidential National Economic Council at an early stage, left the president after his advice fell on deaf ears. Even as data clearly showed widening income disparities, a real estate market in havoc and a record unemployment rate, the president kept a sanguine perspective about the economy. He said real estate prices would stabilize soon and that his minimum wage hikes generated a 90 percent positive impact — with only 10 percent problems. Who can argue with such inanity?
An organization controlled by an inner circle cannot evolve. As we learned from the Peter Principle, there is a limit to the usefulness of every employee. Replacing hard-line Land Minister Kim Hyun-mee with Byeon Chang-heum or die-hard liberal Justice Minister Cho Kuk with controversial politicians such as Choo Mi-ae and Park Beom-gye could not solve any of the problems the administration faced. The government’s coronavirus mitigation success was allowed to slide into a muddle as it ignored advice from experts to get ready for a winter spike with greater hospital space and manpower. It slid into failure on the vaccine issue. Even on the diplomatic front, scholars of a certain university were made diplomats. This was how South Korean diplomacy became shaky for the first time.
No government has relied on such a narrow talent pool. Even former generals Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo left the economy in the hands of experts. The United States also changes members of an administration after a new president is sworn in. But replacements are limited to the political realm and technocrats keep to their offices.
If diversity is avoided, the president can become a “naked king.” All the people around would indulge the president with praise and good news and blind him from seeing the truth. The president avoids addressing controversial issues or policy failures, and only attends glitzy events where he can gloat. This is how the president’s approval ratings have plunged to the 30 percent range. People are upset and bitter. The poor have gotten poorer and real estate prices skyrocketed. All of this is due to a critical dearth of diverse voices in the administration.
President Moon has not mentioned any replacements in the Blue House or among policymakers in a recent reshuffle. He is expected to finish his final year with the same old government structure and policies. His brief apology for real estate instability will be forgotten. There is no light at the end of the tunnel in terms of youth unemployment or the North Korean nuclear problem. Underperforming aides must go. The president has one last chance to make amends.