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[OUTLOOK]First, a ‘regime change’ in Seoul

Feb 26,2003
“Welcome, President Roh. Don’t forget us ― Love and kisses, Pyeongyang”
You’ve got to admire Kim Jong-il’s ability to rise to an occasion. Of course, that missile shot is explained as a routine test, not a provocation, and North Korea had tipped off Japan. Still, the timing is striking. Just as Kim Dae-jung left the Blue House and before Roh Moo-hyun moved in, Pyeong-yang let off its warning shot. The message was unmistakable: “We’re here ― deal with us.”
President Roh rightly ignored the missile test in his inaugural address and outlined his “peace-prosperity policy.” It has a pleasant sound and doesn’t commit the new administration to anything for the time being. Besides, Mr. Roh has a more urgent task than North Korea.
First he must manage “regime change” at home. The phrase has come to mean toppling dictators, but it suits the new presidency, too. He’s a mold-breaker. He’s a “people’s president.” He’s here to change the regime of Korean politics.
The parallel that occurs to me offhand is 1829, when Andrew Jackson’s people took over Washington. Genteel America was scandalized. Un-couth backwoodsmen tracked mud into the White House, blew their noses on their sleeves, belched and swore and drank moonshine whiskey instead of French claret. What was America coming to?
Jackson was America’s first “people’s president.” His election marked the new nation’s democratization, a shift in power from the aristocrats of Virginia and Massachusetts to the common people and their champion, who hailed from the Tennessee frontier.
President Roh’s followers, one trusts, will be better behaved than Jackson’s, but his inauguration yesterday marks a similar transition. The new cabinet contains, as promised, competent and experienced ministers. But many of Mr. Roh’s inner circle, the key aides who will give the ministers their marching orders, have spent their lives as activists and advocates, not political operators. That could be a problem for President Roh.
The trouble with activists is that they are pure-hearted. That’s what’s good about them, too. But politics is the art of the possible, and pure-hearts are most at home championing vir-tue and vilifying vice. They spurn the murky compromises needed for effective government.
These pure-hearted people worked together well so long as their overriding priority was getting Mr. Roh elected. Now comes the hard part, setting priorities and coordinating policies. That will require compromise and subordination of egos. To some of Mr. Roh’s partisans it will smack of “selling out.”
Once they get a taste of power, some pure-hearts like it. Germany’s “Greens” 20 years ago held earnest debates about whether to eschew electoral competition, lest they win office and be corrupted. When they joined the ruling coalition, some of their policies, like eliminating nuclear electricity, had to be demoted to aspirations. Some party members quit to retain their purity. But the former firebrand Joschka Fischer, with a past as radical as anybody’s in the Roh entourage, donned a foreign minister’s suit and tie and settled comfortably among his fellow power brokers. Some of Mr. Roh’s people no doubt will opt for purity, others for effectiveness.
Mr. Roh says he wants to bring “participatory government.” It’s a fine slogan, and its early adumbration, when his transition team set up a Web site to receive personnel nominations and policy proposals from the public, was inspiring. The beginning of the Roh presidency, like his election campaign, has succeeded in quickening people’s faith in politics.
But if he tries to govern by plebiscite, asking the people for their guidance on every issue, his presidency will sink into incoherence. Tax cuts and better medical service, free export trade and tariffs for rice farmers, telling off the United States and benefiting from its protection.
When everyone is encouraged to speak his mind, chaos and confusion result. A Roh team that went to Washington this month to meet U.S. policymakers succeeded only in proving that Mr. Roh’s advisers are hopelessly disorganized. It was not a good first impression for a new president with a key ally.
Mr. Roh’s first task as president ― even before he solves the North Korean crisis, re-shapes the U.S. alliance, reforms the jaebeol and redistributes the national wealth ― is to control his own team. If he can, there is good reason to expect a successful Roh presidency. He is a mold-breaker at a time when Koreans want the nation’s political mold to be broken. As a lawyer and a pure-heart, he may be the man to strengthen the rule of law in Korea. He has grand ideas about a reunified Korea in an economically vibrant Northeast Asia. And by all accounts, he is keenly intelligent, fiercely determined and an optimist ― three good qualities in a president.
Andrew Jackson overcame the misgivings of the American elite of his day and ended up with his face on the $20 bill. May Roh Moo-hyun do as well.

* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.


by Hal Piper


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