The formation of the Moon Jae-in government’s first cabinet is now in its final stage in South Korea. The overall picture shows a pretty even distribution of ministerial appointments from among politicians, bureaucrats, and experts in the private sector. Apparently, they struck a balance. At the same time, however, no clear distinction is visible between the Moon government and its predecessors in terms of the way the cabinet was formed.
One distinctive aspect of cabinet-making in South Korea is that it usually does not involve much of a role for the president’s party. This tradition was observed this time, too. It is unclear what role the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) — the party that nominated Moon as its presidential candidate — played in the making of the cabinet.
During the campaign, Moon had promised that if he is elected, “it will not be a Moon Jae-in government but a government of the DPK.” It was a clear signal to the voters that Moon would put his own party, the DPK, in the driver’s seat of the government, unlike his predecessors who kicked the electoral vehicle away as soon as they had been elected. Buoyed by this pledge, right after the election, DPK chair Choo Mi-ae ambitiously tried to set up an official intra-party committee to recommend candidates for governmental posts in the cabinet and the Blue House, which serves as the South Korean Office of the President. But the attempt went nowhere.
While some lawmakers from the DPK were indeed appointed to the cabinet, they were largely from within Moon’s own faction or his presidential campaign. Traditionally, leaders of the president’s faction within the ruling party or other party heavyweights can voice their opinions about personnel appointments or important policies to the Blue House through informal channels. The significance of Choo’s attempt to set up an independent committee within the ruling party for personnel recommendations lies in that she tried to institutionalize this process, a move which would have strengthened collective decision-making within the ruling party.
No South Korean president has ever been elected without a party nomination. Once elected, however, presidents tend to treat their party more as a formality for passing legislation. It is no wonder that all the presidents’ parties have disappeared whenever the term of the president expired. The oldest party in South Korea is the left-wing Justice Party, which is about five years old, and it is the smallest party inside the National Assembly, South Korea’s unicameral legislature.
Will it be different in the Moon government? Does Moon’s first cabinet show a different pattern than his predecessors’? The first cabinets of his predecessors also had a fair number of elected officials and experts from the party side. But their participation did not seem intended to represent the ruling party but rather themselves as individual participants. Also, participation from the ruling party has historically been limited to some particular ministries. Elected officials have preferred such domestic or “soft” ministries as Culture, Sports, and Tourism; Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs; Maritime and Fisheries; and Land, Infrastructure and Transport. Moon’s first cabinet is no exception.
On the other hand, cabinet posts that deal with such essential but difficult issues as diplomacy, defense, the budget, and national finance almost always went to career bureaucrats. The Moon government appears to observe that tradition as well. Experts or former bureaucrats who keep their distance from the ruling party have occupied almost all ministerial posts related to defense, intelligence, the budget, and national fiscal management. In these areas of the national government, the footprints of the ruling party are rarely visible.
In many democracies of the world, it is a norm rather than an exception for elected officials who have accumulated experience in national policy affairs through elections and party processes to participate in the highest echelons of the governmental hierarchy, such as ministerial posts within the cabinet. U.S. President Donald Trump’s cabinet, which has some successful businesspeople as secretaries, also has a number of former elected officials. Of the 23 cabinet posts that require Senate confirmation, 10 are occupied by seasoned politicians, who cut their teeth on public service in elections and intra-party competitions. Of the five seats that deal with national security, three went to elected officials.
Of course, those who have no experience in elections and party politics can also become great statesmen. A string of U.S. military leaders are cases in point: George Marshall, who became secretary of state and secretary of defense; Dwight Eisenhower, who rose to the U.S. presidency; and Colin Powell, who also became secretary of state.
What matters more, perhaps, is not where officials come from, but whether they have the competence to govern national affairs. In this regard, the ruling DPK itself may be partially responsible for its less visible role in the making of South Korea’s new cabinet. The DPK simply has not attracted talent to its ranks that is experienced enough to be recommended for these cabinet posts. However, it is still an open question as to whether talent can be expected to gather around the ruling party when its members get no opportunity to accumulate expertise in national security and economy.
Balance matters as much as competence. For the past three decades since democratization in 1987, South Korea has not had a civilian defense minister. Only five of the 18 foreign ministers were non-bureaucrats, and their combined tenure covers only four years. In the same period, South Korea had 27 ministers who were responsible for national finance. Of the 27, only four were non-bureaucrats, and their combined terms are only about five years. This observation should be surprising, particularly, considering the fact that in many democracies, a number of great statesmen have come from the ranks of political parties and were trained among voters.
At the moment, Moon’s approval ratings are through the roof, as high as 80 percent. But based on historical precedent of other newly elected presidents, over time those ratings will invariably fall.
In order to prepare for this, Moon could consider working on developing a strong and sound structure within his own party. Lessons from his predecessors show that in the final years of a president’s tenure, a well-organized ruling party can come to the defense of the president’s policies. Also, a strong ruling party will be essential in making his successor — whoever it may be — continue Moon’s legacy. Remember that the impeachment of two South Korean presidents — Roh Moo-hyun and Park Geun-hye — began when Roh allowed the breakup of his own party and when Park openly challenged or even humiliated the leaders of her own party. For a president to be successful, the ruling party should be the linchpin of the president’s strategy for managing legislative affairs and presiding over the cabinet. In South Korea, this lesson has been disregarded for the past three decades.
If Moon is willing to reform his own party and make his government “the government of the DPK,” as he had pledged on the campaign trail, now may be the time for that task. The approval ratings of the DPK are at a historical high, hovering at over 50 percent, and as mentioned earlier, even higher for himself. No major national elections are on the horizon for the time being. Giving a more important role to his own party might be welcomed, giving rise to an effect of gathering talents around it.
To this end, the DPK also has a task cut out for itself. It is imperative for the party to have its own institutionalized system of recruitment, evaluation, promotion, and recommendation for public service. Such a system would raise the predictability of party affairs and processes, thereby making the party a potential cradle and training ground for future political leaders.
In South Korea, it has been long forgotten that the president is also a member of the ruling party. If the party is similar to a board of directors, then the South Korean president is a CEO whose term is limited to only five years. For a large corporation to be successful in the long term, its board of directors needs to maintain its collective wisdom for selecting and training good candidates for the next CEO on a continual basis.
Establishing a party that can select and train candidates to become the next political leaders of the nation will be an essential element for the long-term success of South Korea beyond the five-year term of the current president.
Booseung Chang is a former diplomat of South Korea. He received his doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins SAIS in Asian Studies. Currently, he is doing research on the North Korean nuclear weapons problem in the United States.