Starting with the nomination of the new prime minister, President Park Geun-hye is bracing for what will likely be a sweeping reshuffle of the Cabinet and the presidential office. She certainly hopes that the shakeup will help her administration and the nation recover from the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster and make a fresh start.
The shakeup is important for the president because the new lineup will not only spearhead her government’s efforts to upgrade the nation’s safety system and reform the officialdom but also help restore public confidence in government.
So the president may well try to find the right person for each of the posts. There is no doubt that since the Sewol tragedy people have come to have higher expectations than ever of seeing capable, reform-minded and ethically upright people in public office.
If Park is to make a fresh start and resuscitate her approval ratings, however, there is one more thing she must do beyond finding the right people. The president needs to change the way she runs the government.
The chief executive has often faced criticism over her governing style, which some say reflects her personality. Park’s critics have frequently chided her for her “top-down” management style, personnel policy, lack of communication with outside figures, including the opposition and the media, and rigidity.
Park is well-known for her top-down leadership. Her critics say that she delegates little power to senior officials, from the prime minister downward. She attends to so many details that Cabinet ministers and senior presidential aides are often ridiculed as members of a “dictation Cabinet,” a cynical reference to their having to jot down the president’s instructions.
Park’s personnel policy is often described as a system of “notebook appointments.” The phrase is a sarcastic reference to her preference for people whom she knows well ― those whose names are in her little notebook ― when she looks for candidates for key public posts. She tends to favor bureaucrats, legal professionals and military generals, which her aides say reflects her belief in the “rule of law and principle.”
For this reason, her nomination of former Justice Ahn Dai-hee provided more ammunition for attacks from the opposition, although the nominee is relatively popular for his image as an upright, uncompromising civil servant. Ahn, like his predecessor Chung Hong-won, was a prosecutor.
Lack of communication with people outside her inner circles has been another negative feature of the Park presidency. She scarcely engages the opposition and the media, which earned her the nickname “uncommunicative president.”
Park takes pride in being known as a leader who follows principles and keeps promises, which at the same time could mean that she lacks flexibility and is too obstinate to seek compromises when dealing with domestic and diplomatic issues.
Under the current Constitution, it is inevitable for Korea to have a strong president on whom power is concentrated. Yet, Park’s governing style works against not only her public image as the chief executive but also efficient and smooth management of the government. The Sewol disaster should serve as an occasion for the president to change not only the Cabinet but also her management style.