Yoon’s governing by audits exposes his lack of political solutions

Posted on : 2023-07-03 16:48 KST Modified on : 2023-07-03 16:48 KST
Yoon has frequently used state agencies with investigative powers as a sort of one-size-fits-all solution to the problems he faces in governance
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a national financial strategy meeting for 2023 held on June 28 at the Blue House guest house. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a national financial strategy meeting for 2023 held on June 28 at the Blue House guest house. (Yonhap)

It is becoming routine for the Yoon Suk-yeol administration in South Korea to marshal prosecutors, the Board of Audit and Inspection, the National Tax Service, and the National Intelligence Service to act as spearheads of state operations.

Yoon and his administration have branded the previous administration, the main opposition party, labor unions, civic and social organizations, and the private education system as immoral and anathemas needing to be expelled, demonstrating the Yoon administration’s reliance on inspection agencies.

It has reached the point that Yoon has attacked the administration of his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, an “anti-state force” while criticizing its policy on North Korea.

Experts point out that if the current trend of using inspection agencies as key tools for governing continues, it will add to a vicious cycle of aversion to politics and political fatigue on the part of Korean citizens, leaving a vacuum where politics once was.

A clear pattern being followed

Since Yoon took office, an unmistakable pattern has emerged in his application of state inspection agencies at every turn.

First, Yoon orders strict crackdowns. Next, the People Power Party (PPP) expands on and parrots those orders. Finally, prosecutors, police, the Board of Audit and Inspection, the National Tax Service, and the National Intelligence Service Korea carry out their investigations, inspections and audits.

The Yoon administration has stigmatized groups and individuals critical of government policies or actions as targets for judicial action. Rather than persuading and engaging in dialogue, the administration swiftly labeled them as “rent-seeking” and “interest cartels” and used them as the driving force for its policies.

In the case of education reform, Yoon’s remarks on removing “killer questions” from the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) in June were followed by the presidential office and the ruling party simultaneously attacking large private education companies as a “cartel of interests.” Before long, the National Tax Service had launched an audit into these companies.

Hate and stigmatization are being used as fuel for reform.

Starting with his declaration that he was running for president in June 2021, Yoon has on three occasions referred to “interest cartels” as ills needing eradication.

Even after coming to power, rather than explaining to the public how he planned to implement his three major reforms to education, the pension system, and labor, Yoon claimed that his administration’s reforms were being stymied by cartels with “vested interests.”

In particular, in February 2023, Yoon compared labor unions to thugs, likening the actions of unions at construction sites to organized crime. Police followed Yoon’s lead and launched a special crackdown on illegal activities at construction sites, including extortion and violence. On June 25, the police announced the results of the crackdown, reporting they had handed over 1,484 people to prosecutors and that 132 of these were now behind bars.

However, the crackdown also revealed an excessive use of warrants by police. Between last December and June, police applied for arrest warrants for 47 members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions-affiliated Korean Construction Workers’ Union (KCTU-KCWU) but less than half (23) were actually issued. In other words, a comment by the president sparked an overreaction by the police.

At a Cabinet meeting on Dec. 27, 2022, Yoon took aim at state subsidies for private organizations, saying, “If there is a practice of taking state subsidies for private interests, it is unacceptable,” and that “the people will not tolerate it if taxpayer money is used for specific ‘interest cartels.’”

In January, shortly after Yoon’s directive, the Office for Government Policy Coordination began auditing the subsidization of private organizations by 29 government ministries and agencies. On June 4, the presidential office directly announced the results of the audit, saying it would criminally prosecute or refer organizations found guilty of fraud.

“Even if the Yoon administration does go forward with education reforms, audits of the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation and the Ministry of Education, as well as investigations of academies are the priority,” commented Shin Jin-wook, a professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University, while speaking to the Hankyoreh on Sunday. “Even when we think about labor reforms, audits and pressure on unions come first.”

He went on to state that the Yoon administration is “relying on audits and investigations of civic and social organizations for all of its reforms,” adding that the government’s “’lawful suppression’ is becoming all too common.”

Diplomatic and national security policies have not been immune from this approach of using state inspection agencies as a one-size-fits-all solution.

In 2022, Yoon’s administration launched a major probe into the Moon Jae-in administration’s handling of two cases involving North Korean actors: a 2020 case in which a civil servant was killed by North Korea after going missing at the West Sea, and the repatriation of North Korean fishers in 2019.

As a result, two former directors of the National Intelligence Service under Moon, Suh Hoon and Park Jie-won, were brought into the prosecution’s radar.

More recently, after the Ministry of Environment approved the environmental impact assessment for the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) base in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, the PPP called for an audit by the Board of Audit and Inspection and an investigation by prosecutors, accusing the Moon administration of “deliberately delaying” the process.

Prosecutorial leadership and a lack of political solutions

Analysts say Yoon’s reliance on investigations in his politics reflects what he is accustomed to as someone who has only ever worked as a prosecutor. Having gone from prosecutor general straight to head of state, Yoon tends to be dependent on courses of action that simulate his experiences during his years as a prosecutor, they argue.

Lee Kwan-hu, a professor at Konkuk University’s Sang-Huh College, commented that all government offices have been “made into prosecution services.”

“When reform is needed, [Yoon] thinks sending out prosecutors to find the ‘bad guy’ through investigations and inspections and simply cutting out the problem is all that is needed,” Lee said. “As mobilizing prosecutors and treating [people] as if [they] are criminals is Yoon’s occupational habit, personnel, organization, and operation at all offices are being made into prosecution services.”

Chae Jin-won, a professor at Kyunghee University’s Institute of Public Governance, remarked, “The Yoon administration is justifying its actions by arguing that catching and punishing villains according to retributive justice is justice.”

Some say that Yoon’s style of government, which deems investigations all-powerful, derives from the lack of clarity surrounding the tasks the administration wishes to pursue in addition to the unlikelihood of the ruling camp scoring wins through legislation with an opposition majority. When “things that need to be done” and “things that can be done” are both unclear and difficult to achieve, Yoon would rather focus on uncovering injustices and corruption within the opposition, labor unions, and the private sector.

While being interviewed on SBS radio on June 22, Kim Chong-in, former interim leader of the People Power Party, said, “There’s absolutely no discernible concrete goal as to what [he] intends to do moving forward.” He went on to say that the Yoon administration’s lack of foundation for what it wants to accomplish in the next five years is its “biggest weakness.”

“This seems to be more so because [Yoon] hasn’t found a political solution,” Yeungnam University political science and diplomacy professor Jung Byung-kee shared.

Critics point out that this type of governing will harm both the Korean public and the administration. Shin explained, “[Yoon] may have born into consideration [factors like] securing a support base on the long- and short-run and winning the general election by stigmatizing labor unions or civic groups,” adding, “But this kind of attitude may lead to a vicious cycle of politics dying out followed by growing hatred and indifference.”

Eom Gyeong-yeong, who serves as director of the Zeitgeist Institute, said, “If this so-called ‘negative governance’ continues in the long run, the people may grow tired and Yoon’s approval rating may hit an upper bound.”

By Seo Young-ji, staff reporter; Shin Min-jung, staff reporter; Son Hyun-soo, staff reporter

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

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles