[Column] The president’s questionable capacity for dialogue

Posted on : 2024-04-22 16:50 KST Modified on : 2024-04-22 16:50 KST
When it comes to dialogue, half of it is about listening
Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Suk-yeol take part in a televised presidential debate on Feb. 3, 2022, jointly put on by Korea’s three terrestrial broadcasters. (pool photo)
Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Suk-yeol take part in a televised presidential debate on Feb. 3, 2022, jointly put on by Korea’s three terrestrial broadcasters. (pool photo)

By Kim Yeon-chul, former minister of unification and current professor at Inje University

Wars are waged with weapons, but politics is waged with words. In the wake of the recent general elections here in Korea, many have been expressing their hopes for a revival of politics. After all, we are currently facing a crisis situation with the looming dark clouds of economic crisis and a number of tasks that await resolution.

The president has also finally agreed to meet with the leader of the main opposition party, in a belated but welcome gesture. Their first-ever meeting is raising high hopes. Will the president show the kind of dialogue capabilities we have yet to observe from him?

Dialogue means meeting face-to-face and talking. Both domestic politics and diplomacy take place through dialogue.

A president who is good at politics will also excel at diplomacy. It’s no coincidence that Kim Dae-jung had the most inter-party summits of any administration in South Korean history.

Conversely, when a leader shows themselves to be unwilling to communicate with counterparts at home, that tends to be repeated in their diplomacy abroad. Domestic politics and diplomacy are two sides of the same coin.

When it comes to the capacity for dialogue, half of it is about listening. When asked about the secret behind his success with Northern Ireland peace talks, George Mitchell explained that he had spent three months just listening to what the different factions had to say.

The higher a person’s status is, the more they need to develop the ability to listen instead of talking. When a president simply speaks without listening, it becomes impossible for them to understand what the public wants or see why prices are so high and why living has become such a struggle for ordinary people. The reason politicians go to talk to people on the ground is so they can listen.

Similarly, the first step in resolving conflict lies in listening to the other side’s complaints and discontent. People who don’t listen should not practice politics.

Dialogue is something that begins when we acknowledge the other side. Obviously, we cannot sit down together when one side disregards or hates the other and regards them as someone who needs to be rooted out.

The goals of dialogue are various. How great would it be if we could resolve our problems with just a few simple words? But dialogue is not a one-time thing. It has to take place many times. In this sense, it is less like climbing a mountain and more like climbing a mountain range.

Dialogue is a process of recognizing differences and finding commonalities. The reason for the listening and talking is so that tradeoffs can be made. Politics is about establishing trust and coordinating interests by honoring one promise at a time. In that sense, it is different from the winner-take-all approach of warfare.

A leader’s capacity for dialogue can mean the life or death of an organization. This is all the more the case in Korean organization culture, where it is people rather than institutions that hold sway.

There is an abundance of evidence that the current administration is not turning back. In the international humiliation of the World Scout Jamboree, in the mere 29 votes cast for Busan to host the World Expo (all too few in light of South Korea’s diplomatic stature), and in the cover-up of the true circumstances behind a Marine’s death during a flooding response, we find a common aspect: these are all cases where administration’s functions ended up paralyzed.

This is hardly all. With nearly every conflict that erupts, the administration has been nowhere to be found, and government employees have sat on their hands instead of acting.

Why is morale among government employees so low? Appointees whose objectives are diametrically opposed to the organization’s have been airdropped into leadership roles. Organizations are suffering severe personnel congestion as vacant seats are not filled for some reason or another. Investigations and disciplinary actions are still taking place over things that happened under the previous administration.

As a result, capable people are leaving the ranks of civil servants, while incompetent people who once held unimportant jobs are suddenly brimming with unwarranted confidence in their abilities and making messes as they please. Meanwhile, the remaining people are all just counting the days until they get approved for overseas training. 

When official society is like this, who would feel like working? This goes some way toward explaining why the opposition won landslide victories in regions with large numbers of government employees.

But rather than revitalizing organizations through more active communication, the president is trying to establish something like military discipline, with the kind of morale-boosting for officials that we might have encountered in the era of dictatorships. Inevitably, active administration falls by the wayside, and instead we see efforts to avoid responsibility and show no flexibility.

This is why so many public servants have been complaining about environments becoming more rigid and unfriendly. There is a strong correlation between leaders’ refusal to communicate and hostility among government employees.

Confucius once said, “If you speak, you must act, and if you act, there must be results.” This means that you should not say something if you do not intend to put it into practice, and that you should also anticipate the outcome when you act.

This is a core part of both politics and diplomacy. The public will not trust a leader who lies too often or makes too many empty statements. Hopefully, the administration will consider why it failed to receive any positive response to the flurry of livelihood-related pledges that it issued during the general election campaign.

The same is true in diplomacy. Those who lack the capacity for dialogue will not be respected on the diplomatic stage, and their role will diminish accordingly.

Recently, we have heard the term “cooperative politics” entering the discussion. It is not a word that ought to be used by an administration that has incapacitated nearly every existing mechanism for collaborative governance that has been defined by law, including those between the administration and civil society or among labor, management, and the government.

Cooperation is the duty of the administration and the ruling party to duly perform, not the language of the opposition party. The president’s first order of business should be to sit down and listen to the opinions of those across classes and sectors, recruit the right people for the job, clear up any suspicions held by the public, and come up with solutions to all the myriad problems Korean society is confronting. Once he does that, he can ask for cooperation from across the aisle. 

It pains me to say that on the precipice of a crisis, I don’t have much faith in our president’s ability to pursue sincere dialogue. And that is precisely the core of the tragedy that Korea finds itself in. 

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

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