December 23, 2022
SEOUL – President Yoon Suk-yeol may not hold his first New Year’s press conference as the presidential office is said to be skipping the crucial and customary event. However, Yoon is encouraged to go for the press conference, not only for clarifying his stance on various national issues, but also for making good on his pledge to better communicate with the public through the media.
According to media reports, the presidential office decided to skip the presidential conference next year for mainly two reasons. First, Yoon already unveiled the bulk of his national agenda items for 2023 at the 156-minute meeting with ministers and panelists that was televised live on Dec. 15. Second, other details of major issues will be made public through the New Year’s report to the president by ministers. State agencies reports already started Wednesday.
The two reasons, however, are not adequately convincing. The town hall style meeting on Dec. 15 was a largely pre-orchestrated event, with limited questions and predictable answers. It was hard to expect incisive and critical questions to come up in a way that could challenge Yoon and press him to share his views in detail.
It is also hard to see any true exchange of opinions in the ministers’ reports to the president in the following weeks, as they are based on the texts submitted earlier. Furthermore, the New Year’s report by ministries is expected to be unilateral in nature, with ministers explaining major plans without responding to impromptu questions.
Holding a press conference is fundamentally different. Whether they liked it or not, most presidents have held the New Year’s presidential press conference since 1968, when President Park Chung-hee introduced the particular format. In recent years, not only Korean reporters, but also foreign journalists joined the annual event to examine major national agenda items and explore presidents’ opinions on pressing issues ranging from politics and economy to social affairs.
Although a single press conference may not resolve all the important issues, the presidential press event is regarded as a rare and significant opportunity for the public and the media to get a glimpse of the president’s perspectives on various sectors, as well as where the nation is headed.
When Yoon took office in May, he stressed the importance of communication with the public. He did demonstrate his will for that purpose by holding the first-ever morning press briefing on his way to the office, which was called “doorstepping” by the press here. There were 61 morning briefings, a respectable result in consideration of what other presidents did in terms of open communication with the media. Although some of his comments were provocative and inappropriate, Yoon deserves credit for making an effort to hold almost daily press briefings.
But Yoon’s push for such a communicative style recently hit a snag as he fiercely clashed with MBC, a major television network, over the broadcast of his profanity-laced remark in New York. It is a truly regrettable development, aside from the fact that Yoon himself did not reveal what he actually said and meant by his crude remark.
Since the altercation with MBC, his daily briefings also came to a halt. The presidential office said there is no plan to resume them. At this point, Yoon has resorted to the fairly familiar pattern of previous presidents — a pattern in which potentially risky press conferences are canceled and presidential messages are delivered to the public unilaterally.
Some critics point out that Yoon’s reluctance to meet with the press coincided with the improvement in his approval ratings. Realmeter said Monday that its latest survey showed the presidential approval rating standing at 41.1 percent, surpassing the 40 percent mark for the first time since June. This is mainly due to his criticism of the previous administration’s health care policy and his aggressive push for reforms in three major sectors. Some attributed the rise in approval ratings to the absence of the daily briefings in recent weeks, which prevented him from making damaging comments.
Given that the nation faces a growing number of grave issues ranging from North Korea’s threats to the economic slowdown, Yoon should step forward and share his views with the public by holding a New Year’s press conference, even if he may find it challenging to deal with tough questions.