Cheong Wa Dae, currently struggling to cope with a burgeoning scandal involving fired spokesman Yoon Chang-jung, is receiving flak for poorly managing the crisis by taking belated measures.
The brouhaha stooped to a new low over the weekend following Yoon’s news conference, an apparent vendetta against his boss, senior secretary for public relations Lee Nam-ki, for his dismissal, by claiming Lee was behind his abrupt return to Seoul last Thursday.
Yoon had returned to Seoul after police were called to the scene by an intern who claimed Yoon groped her during his stay in Washington, where he was accompanying President Park Geun-hye on her first overseas trip. Yoon was sacked the day after.
Yoon claimed he was sent home despite his plea of innocence, which in turn generated news reports about whether Cheong Wa Dae had attempted to contain the case prematurely.
The approximately 26-hour gap between Park’s top aides learning of the incident and reporting it to her also stoked doubts over Cheong Wa Dae’s crisis management system and communication channel, or lack thereof.
Lee’s apology on Friday, directed at the public as well as the president for the incident, made the matter worse, as the opposition forces lambasted the move as highly inappropriate “as the president is also a person of responsibility.”
Huh tried to contain the escalating criticism by apologizing himself on Sunday, but it failed to quell public frustration as he fell short of clarifying whether Lee had ordered Yoon to leave the U.S. capital.
“It can be said that Cheong Wa Dae has lost the credibility from the public,” said Kim Hoh, president of THE LAB h, a communications and crisis management training company.
Citing that any immediate remarks of regret from President Park upon her return would have provided the public some sense of trust, Kim said that the biggest problem was that Cheong Wa Dae was seen as not telling the full truth.
“When it comes to managing a crisis, it is not about what ‘our issues’ are, but what ‘their (the public) issues’ are. It is not so much about logic as it is about emotion,” he added.
The Cheong Wa Dae officials had remained ambiguous about the whereabouts of Yoon after he was seen to have returned to Seoul, some explaining he had a family emergency.
It was also evident that the communication channel between Park and her aides was highly restricted when Lee told reporters on Friday, “It is not possible to go to the president abruptly as we please,” in response to why Yoon’s case was not reported sooner.
Cheong Wa Dae officials that were caught off guard by Yoon’s lengthy press conference on Saturday raised additional questions as to whether they were taking necessary crisis management measures at all.
Park’s PR team has been subject to criticism since the transition committee days as her team members were constantly criticized for being incommunicative, uncooperative and prescriptive.
“In cases like this, it is inevitable that there are constant rumors and speculations. In order to control the situation, it would be most important at this point to get the investigation going immediately and have the facts clarified,” Kim said.
The incident has stoked new political fighting as the main opposition Democratic Party stepped up attacks against the president’s personnel management style and the ruling Saenuri Party tried to distance itself from the scandal.
On Monday, Saenuri Party floor leader Rep. Hwang Woo-yea called for a “stern reprimand” to be issued as soon as possible.
In addition, Saenuri Party floor leader candidates Reps. Choi Kyung-hwan and Lee Ju-young took hard-line positions on the issue in an apparent effort to shield themselves from the impact the incident may have on Wednesday’s floor leader election.
Choi, who is considered the most influential figure of the pro-Park Geun-hye faction, has repeatedly criticized Yoon and called for Lee Nam-ki, chief press secretary, to take responsibility.
Lee Ju-young expressed similar views, saying that he would ask for Lee to be replaced if elected as the party’s floor leader.
For the opposition parties, the incident has reignited issues regarding the president’s personnel management style.
Democratic Party chairman Rep. Kim Han-gil called for the president to establish new standards for personnel appointments, saying that the incident was a “humiliation for the nation caused by the president’s obstinate personnel management.”
“The situation will only be concluded when Cheong Wa Dae’s crisis management system is overhauled,” Kim said.
The Democratic Party chairman also called for those responsible to be made answer for the developments, adding weight to the party’s earlier call for the entire presidential staff to be replaced.
On Sunday, Democratic Party secretary general Rep. Park Ki-choon called for a “reshuffle of Cheong Wa Dae,” saying that the presidential staff should be replaced with “ethical and loyal” individuals who contributed to the president’s election.
Park Ki-choon, who served as the party’s floor leader until last week, also said that a parliamentary hearing regarding Yoon and the “loss of national prestige” should be held.
By Lee Joo-hee and Choi He-suk