Voters can judge a new leader by the people he or she selects for their inaugural Cabinet. Lee Myung-bak's presidency showed initial signs of failure when a couple of his first appointees ― cronies from the same region, school or church as Lee ― had to bow out. Five years later, Koreans have a similar, and far graver, ominous feeling.
Six of President Park Geun-hye's ministerial picks have withdrawn so far, and for more serious problems than simple cronyism, such as stints as a broker, a sex scandal and assets hidden overseas.
But what sets apart the incumbent leader from her predecessor is Park's response ― or lack thereof ― to popular criticism. On Saturday, a Cheong Wa Dae spokeswoman read a two-sentence (63-letter) apology to the public for the appointment fiasco, signed by Park's chief of staff.
The "three-layered" apology ― if it can be called such at all ― was a cold reminder of how Park views the public and presidential leadership.
It was small surprise then that at the first meeting of the Cabinet, presidential office and the ruling Saenuri Party later that day, party officials accused ministers and secretaries of not properly delivering popular sentiments to the chief executive. To the eyes of people, however, the governing party leaders were no better at all, too timid to make sound criticism and frank recommendations to the president.
Come to think of it, what many, her critics and supporters alike, had worried about is turning into reality. During last year's campaign, this page, too, predicted, based on Park's remarks and attitudes reflecting her political philosophy and state administration, that if elected she may be a good leader but not a democratic one who can work with opponents through smooth communications. Still, few knew her problems would manifest themselves at so early a stage in her tenure.
Cheong Wa Dae says it will come up with a more thorough vetting system, but nothing will change unless one person changes ― the president herself.
Nobody doubts Park's patriotism and her deep dedication ― or self-sacrifice― to Korea and Koreans. But for a leader without leadership that suits the call of the times ― such as open discussion, persuasion and compromise ― his or her patriotism and strong conviction can do more harm than good, while wasting the president's, and the nation's, energy that should otherwise be spent on far more productive purposes.
For anyone over 60, change is never easy. But Park should at least try to modify herself, and the first step toward that is to admit her mistakes. She should make a direct apology in whatever way is appropriate.