Yoon’s phoned-in response to major flooding draws criticism

Posted on : 2022-08-10 17:24 KST Modified on : 2022-08-10 17:24 KST
Some members of the opposition say the recent response to flooding exemplifies the concerns they had over Yoon’s move out of the Blue House
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to Park Jun-hee, the head of Gwanak District, outside the building where three members of the same family died during flash flooding on Aug. 8. (pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to Park Jun-hee, the head of Gwanak District, outside the building where three members of the same family died during flash flooding on Aug. 8. (pool photo)

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is facing criticism after he ordered rescue services to respond to record-setting rainfall and flash flooding around the capital region by phone from his private residence in Seoul.

The presidential office maintains that the president did nothing wrong because he received reports in real time throughout the night about the extent of the flood damage. “The president decided against visiting the scene of the damage or the government situation room on the grounds that his presence might undermine the response capability,” an official said.

But the opposition Democratic Party said the recent rainfall has demonstrated the hazards of moving the presidential office out of the Blue House, the Korean president’s historical residence.

The presidential office said on Tuesday morning that Yoon received reports and gave instructions about the flood damage during phone calls with Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min, and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon from his residence in the city’s Seocho neighborhood from Monday evening until early Tuesday morning.

In other words, while Yoon remained home because of the challenges of driving on flooded roads in his neighborhood, his office says he still took all the necessary measures in real time.

That sparked criticism from the opposition, with Democratic Party spokesperson Jo O-seop lamenting a “tragedy produced by the president’s obstinate insistence about relocating the presidential office and residence.”

The residence of the foreign minister in Seoul’s Hannam neighborhood, which is slated to be the new presidential residence, is only five minutes away from the presidential office, but renovations to the residence have become delayed due to inclement weather.

The Blue House had a crisis management center with real-time links to every city, county and municipal district in Korea, but Yoon moved the presidential office to Yongsan before the new presidential residence could be completed. As a result, the opposition alleges, Yoon couldn’t show up at the crisis management center to take the necessary measures in time.

Democratic Party lawmaker Youn Kun-young, who directed the situation room under former President Moon Jae-in, took aim at Yoon on Facebook.

“Does it make sense to manage the situation from an apartment when we have a perfectly good crisis management center?” Youn wrote. “So much for that audacious claim that moving the presidential office to Yongsan wouldn’t lead to any gaps in governance. It’s horrifying to think what might have happened if this had been a serious national disaster.”

The issue was also brought up during a press briefing by Ye Yun-hai, the deputy spokesperson for the Justice Party.

“When [Yoon] left the Blue House, which was fully equipped to function as a control tower, he said he wouldn’t have any trouble handling all aspects of national security in Yongsan. Who’s going to trust a president who has to give orders by telephone from his home when we’re hit by a disaster-level rainstorm?”

While the People Power Party refuted the opposition’s criticism as a “political attack,” quite a few members of the party acknowledged that the speed and efficacy of the government’s crisis response “unfortunately created public anxiety,” to quote a member of the party’s leadership.

Yoon didn’t give his first direct instructions about the flooding in the capital region until 11:54 pm on Monday, and party members also said it wasn’t appropriate for Yoon to encourage government agencies and public institutions to let workers clock in late when those workers were the very ones needed for the crisis response.

The presidential office stressed that Yoon had given orders over the phone from home because he believed that showing up at the situation room or the scene of rescue efforts would undermine the response effort by distracting workers with reports and protocol.

A senior official from the presidential office provided reporters with a passage of internal guidelines drafted on May 20. “Officials from the presidential office situation room, Ministry of Interior and Safety, National Fire Agency and Korea Forest Service decided in a meeting that the relevant agency should be instructed to take aggressive action and that [the president] shouldn’t visit the scene of a disaster until things had calmed down and were being wrapped up. The officials believed it would create considerable confusion on the ground if the presidential office moved to take direct control at an early stage of a disaster,” the senior official explained.

As for the opposition party’s criticism that the tragedy was a consequence of relocating the presidential office, the official retorted that the opposition was “even attempting to exploit a disaster situation for its political ends.”

“Korea’s largest opposition party is making false claims about the relocation of the presidential office as it wages an irresponsible political attack that disregards public pain,” said Kang In-sun, spokesperson of the presidential office, in a written statement to the press.

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter; Joh Yun-yeong, staff reporter; Oh Yeon-seo, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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