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Korea’s imperial presidency

Feb 09,2019
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Choi Sang-yeon
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Cheats are everywhere. They are more conmen going to prison than thieves or drunk drivers. According to the Supreme Court, there are over 40,000 scam cases pending in the lower courts. A surprising number are imposters claiming to be connected to the Blue House. There’s a pedigree to these scams: the man who posed as the adopted son of South Korea’s first president Syngman Rhee in 1957. During the terms of Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, more than nine out of 10 conmen pretended to be connected with the Blue House. Many succeeded and caused losses of hundreds of billions of won.

The schemes varied depending on the tenant of the Blue House at the time. Under Park Chung Hee, the many scams were based on the Saemaeul Movement, Park’s signature rural modernization campaign. Under Chun Doo Hwan, who also seized power through a military coup, charlatanism was focused on his relatives. Lee Jae-man, one of the so-called three doorknobs, or inner circle of the ousted President Park Geun-hye, had appeal over the gullible. The powerful name in the incumbent Moon Jae-in administration was Im Jong-seok, the chief of staff until recently. One person in his 70s, while questioned by the police for crashing into three cars while intoxicated, raised an uproar in the police station by saying he wanted to talk to Im, with whom he claimed to have been drinking. There was one victim who handed over 30 million won ($26,679) to a person who pretended to be close to Im.

Why are Koreans so gullible when someone name drops the Blue House? Obviously our society still believes in the might of presidential power. During the Joseon Dynasty, people claimed to be undercover inspectors from the royal court to steal money from common folk. In modern days, the monarch lives in the Blue House. The conmen confessed that their frauds worked whenever they brought up the name of Im. In the past, the all-round name was Kim Ki-choon, the powerful chief of staff of Park Geun-hye, and Lee Sang-deuk, a former politician and elder brother of President Lee Myung-bak. Until recently, the shadow king was Im.

Despite their promises to be more humble than their predecessors, most presidents maintain mighty offices. The Moon administration dare not call itself a small office with an outsized staff of over 1,000 running on a record budget. No matter how many times faces change and a new deputy prime minister claims to be in control of economic affairs, everyone knows who the real powers behind the throne are. The direction still comes from the policy chief in the Blue House.

Ironically, a powerful presidential secretariat was institutionalized by Park Chung Hee, whom liberals still detest as a dictator. The secretariat wielded power over the cabinet, and was able to dump any fault or blame on ministers to defend the authority of the president. The legacy of the presidential staff went on, along with the arrogance and aloofness of authority. This shadow power brought down former President Park Geun-hye, who consulted with clandestine friend Choi Soon-sil. Despite its all-out efforts to erase all the legacies of the past conservative governments, few in the Moon administration talk about making changes to the power of the presidential office.

After a shakeup at the Blue House, the cabinet awaits its own reshuffles. An administration nearing its half-term mark needs new faces. But few expect major changes. The names will likely be picked from the same pool. New faces in the cabinet will go on taking orders from the presidential office. The cabinet has become less significant under the Moon administration.

Times have changed. Those changes call for a transfer of the government’s paramount role to civilians and for executive authority to be checked and balanced by the co-equal powers of the legislature and judiciary. The president must fulfill this separation on behalf of his former boss President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh had proposed to relinquish the power to name the prime minister to the legislature if it agreed to electorate reform to end political concentrations in certain regions and enduring regional divisions. Moon was elevated through a mass movement-led impeachment and removal of a president. But the administration is repeating the bad practices of the past. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton lectured President Donald Trump to be focused on the job, which is about the people and “not you … A lot of these people who are real arrogant in office, they forget.” Let us hope that Moon has not forgotten.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 8, Page 30