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Form over substance

Jan 12,2019
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President Moon Jae-in holds a New Year’s press conference at the Blue House on Thursday. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
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Choi Sang-yeon
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Once again, President Moon Jae-in’s New Year’s press conference exposed shortcomings. It was a political event in which the president not only repeated already well publicized arguments but also listened to only what he wanted to hear and showed only what he wanted to show.

The country on a thin ice as the economic crisis worsens day by day. Many wanted a hopeful message to ease the insecurity of the people and introspection to improve policy ridden excessively with ideology. And yet, at odds with the appearance and rhetoric of the event, the key message was that he will continue to push current policies. Just like his previous press conferences, the format of the event, which had no prearranged script, different from past administrations, was more about the highlights than the content itself.

Emotional elements were once again added, including touchy music. But Moon’s answers were less specific than the answers you would hear at a more staged press conference. Of course, it is a great step forward that the president actually led the press conference. In such a spontaneous event, the public expects honest and candid opinions.

And yet, answers did not often match the questions, and Moon sometimes veered toward the self congratulatory and failed to generate public consensus. The event seemed to focus on Moon’s image as a communicative president, not the communication itself. Moon even insisted that his administration “recruited talented journalists, and does not have the cozy relationship between the government and media as was seen in the past,” when asked about his practice of hiring journalists to top posts in the Blue House.

Moon made public his determination when he held the press conference to mark the 100-day anniversary of his administration and other media events. At the time, Moon gained strong support by promising to “respect the National Assembly and communicate with opposition parties as a partner” and “to improve the business environment.”

Of course, it was just a promise. Kim Byong-joon, who used to work with Moon in the Roh Moo-hyun government, is now leading the emergency leadership of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, but they have yet to meet. Companies and self-employed store owners complained about the situation, but Moon insisted that the macroeconomy is strong and that media were distorting the situation in the past media events. This time, however, such comments were not even made.

The format was two-way communication, but the content was one-way. Moon stressed the importance of communication. That may sounds refreshing, but it is actually nothing new. Lack of communication destroyed Moon’s predecessor. To prevent such a catastrophic ending, Moon must face the public at least once a month if he cannot have routine press conferences twice or three times a month like the U.S. president. U.S. President Donald Trump frequently argues with journalists, but he addresses the media almost daily. It’s been less than two years since Moon took office, but the opportunity to talk to the president has become a rare event that only takes place once or twice a year.

And the key is honest, two-way communication. “You can just listen to my response,” is not true communication. When he held the first secretariat meeting, Moon stressed that it is the duty of the secretaries to present different opinions. But it was never reported so far that an aide has disagreed with him.

You can judge how open the Moon administration is on whistle-blowers by looking into its handling of the latest scandals involving former Blue House inspector Kim Tae-woo and former government official Shin Jae-min.

To make the press conference a true event of communication, Moon should have at least expressed his regret about the allegations surrounding his senior secretary for civil affairs. But Moon flatly declared that “the law-enforcement authorities of the current government have never disappointed the people.”

Politics is a challenge because many people think differently. It is a difficult task to make the minority opinion a majority opinion through persuasion and compromise. Moon, however, declared his desire to be a communicative president who well knows the challenges. He said King Sejong the Great is the role model for leadership and promised to become a president who communicates with the people by looking into their eyes.

It is a promise that cannot be realized if he insists on his way and that of his loyal aides. Emotional approaches, of course, are not the answer. How much longer do we have to bear the irony that we have to demand communication from the “communicative government”?

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 11, Page 30