My Heart Goes Out to Kim Eun-hye
By Oh Young-jin
Kim Eun-hye was a star reporter when she worked for MBC TV. Then, she quit her job to join the current Lee Myung-bak administration as a spokeswoman.
As with President Lee, there is been a wide spectrum of opinions about her performance. Last week, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, she made a ``big mistake,'' jeopardizing her reputation.
Before I nitpick about what's wrong with her behavior, I want to stress that she did make a big mistake ― but it was not big enough of a blunder for her to step down. After all, despite the fact that it is human nature to make mistakes, working for the head of state is a stressful job that permits no lapses in concentration.
It may not be hard to find a replacement with similar abilities but having that person learn about the trade will prove to be time consuming. Besides, Kim can learn from the mistake.
By this time, chances are that she has repeatedly gone over what she did wrong in her mind and listed the ``do's'' and ``don'ts'' for the next time she finds herself in a similar situation. Still, I think that it is important for her to crosscheck her list with those of others who can sympathize with her, just to make sure.
First of all, as widely reported, it is wrong to tweak the words of the President.
During an interview with the BBC, President Lee actually said, ``I see it possible to meet (North Korean leader Kim Jong-il) within this year.'' Lee also dropped all conditions he has set out for an inter-Korean summit, instead saying, ``with no preconditions attached and for the purpose of reconciliation and cooperation.'' Lee had previously insisted that any summit should help the North abandon its nuclear arms and return the South Korean people currently held there.
In a press release made under spokeswoman Kim's supervision, Lee was quoted as saying, ``I see no reason for us not to meet this year,'' if it could help resolve the North's nuclear problem and promote inter-Korean peace.
Kim's gaffe should have stopped here.
But obviously pressed by reporters on the discrepancies, Kim said what she should not have said. She was quoted as saying, ``The President was extremely tired and the interview didn't go well. Considering the impact of his remarks, I consulted him and changed the wording of his statement, reflecting what he had really meant.''
There is a basic list of things presidential aides should always bear in mind. That list includes using extreme caution when discussing a head of state's health and not making excuses for a mistake he or she might make.
In other words, by talking about Lee being tired, Kim unintentionally divulged a secret that can be used by a negotiating partner.
For instance, if Lee met Kim in a summit, Kim, knowing that Lee can get easily tired, could prolong the negotiation in an effort to gain the best deal possible. (Of course, Kim himself is not in great health after suffering from a stroke, but Pyongyang is crafty enough to use other stalling tactics). This type of negotiating tactic has historical precedents ― i.e. Josef Stalin vs. FDR and Gorbachev vs. Reagan.
Secondly, presidential spokespersons should be ready to play the role of fall guy shielding the President against any possible criticism. By telling reporters that she was cleared by Lee about a change in his wording, Kim inadvertently left the impression that the President does not grasp what he says.
This could invite arbitrary interpretations about what Lee says from hostile third parties that may be engaged in crucial talks with Lee.
Above all, her behavior leaves a great deal to be desired about presidential officers' primary role of keeping the President on message.
The President has the greatest access to all kinds of secrets. It is human nature to feel tempted to talk about what he knows but others don't. So, providing him with guidelines about things he can and can't talk about should be a priority to his press office.
Kim broke another cardinal rule by getting more information than the amount required for the job. If she knows more, she may be tempted to say it to reporters. This kind of behavior, more often than not, proves to be a disservice to the President because it can hinder his handling of important items behind the scenes.
Equally important is his selection of venues through which he issues important statements.
By this standard, picking the BBC interview as the medium to disclose something as important as a possible summit strikes many people as being odd.
Unless it is directly related to the country that a particular foreign media outlet represents, it is standard for a President to use domestic media outlets to convey key messages.
Of course, it's possible that Lee wanted to use his BBC interview to test in advance how domestic public opinion would react. However, this scenario failed to hold water as soon as Kim dropped the ball and disclosed what she would be better off not speaking of.
A small footnote about the possibility of a third summit is that I sense it is coming far nearer than is believed. First, the timing is mutually right for both South and North Korea because Pyongyang knows that any agreement with the South coming late in the Seoul government's mandate can be easily overturned by the next government. Secondly, all South Korean presidents want to make an achievement toward unification and leave it as part of their legacy.
Back to Kim, I believe that she can be a better spokeswoman for President Lee if she can learn from the Davos debacle.