Wake Up Call for the President

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Wake Up Call for the President

People who are too preoccupied with impractical and remote issues to see the more pressing ones are often compared to the ancient Greek philosopher and astronomer Thales of Miletus. One legend describes the father of Western philosophy as falling into a well in his yard while examining the stars in the night sky.

The tale can be applied to President Kim Dae-jung who, since being accorded the Nobel Peace Prize, has been pondering the world while his country teeters on the brink of financial chaos.

When he was in Brunei to attend the APEC summit and met Korean residents, he immodestly stated that because of his Nobel, Korea has now joined the ranks of first-class civilized nations. He said some people are urging him to use his new international status to advance the Middle East peace process and reduce the tensions between India and Pakistan.

On the home front, meanwhile, unemployment is soaring and recent university graduates are facing a dwindling job market. The employees of troubled Daewoo Motor and Dong-ah Construction are spending sleepless nights, worrying about their future.

It was under these dire circumstances that the president entertained the idea of mediating peace in faraway lands - a clear indication that he is staring at stars while the country''s economy seems to be moving toward another crisis.

The public perception is that the president is more concerned with his international celebrity than with the well-being of those who elected him to office.

In an interview with a local television station, Mr. Kim stated that an expected increase in tourists, exports and foreign investment as a result of his winning the Nobel, could amount to $3.3 billion in revenue. The dubious reckoning, no doubt the work of a persidential sycophant, is unsubstantiated, and has little meaning for the people worrying about where their next meal and pay check will come from. Foreign investment, tourism and exports do not rise or fall as a result of a head of state winning a Nobel.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. His policy of perestroika opened the gates of reform and unleashed a democratic tide in East Europe that swept away remnants of the Cold War.

At the time, Mr. Gorbachev''s contribution to world peace appeared so great that one Nobel did not seem enough. But Mr. Gorbachev failed to hear the sounds of his own country toppling, so intent was he on working towards world peace.

When he ran in the 1996 presidential election, Russian voters showed their displeasure with his lack of interest in domestic affairs by giving him a mere 0.5 percent of the vote. Being a Nobel laureate did not automatically win him their respect.

Mr. Kim rose to power by denouncing the preceding administration for nearly bankrupting the national economy. His criticism of those he believed were responsible for reducing the nation to such a dismal state was so powerful that it won him the popular support he needed to win the presidency.

If today''s economic crisis worsens he might find himself on the receiving end of the same criticism. The government is trying to convince the people that the current economic situation is not as serious as the financial crisis that hit the nation at the end of 1997. But the public feels it could be as grave, and fears that a repeated scenario in which the nation is again forced to go to the International Monetary Fund with an outstretched hand is not beyond the realm of possibility.

When he first rose to power, Mr. Kim predicted a rosy future, confidently claiming the economy would recover and that the recovery would spread to every sector. This does not seem to be the case. On the contrary, Mr. Kim''s recovery was just a remission. No one believes the economy will improve by the spring, as the government suggests.

A ruling party legislator called Mr. Kim''s domestic policy an abysmal failure compared to his spectacular foreign policy achievements. But only the first half of his appraisal of Mr. Kim''s work seems to be accurate.

What foreign policy success has he achieved, save for the North Korea policy? It is true that relations with the United States and Japan have made headway. But he has not accomplished a landmark feat comparable to the Roh Tae-woo administration''s establishment of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1991 and with China in 1992.

Mr. Kim''s North Korea policy could also face a serious challlenge if George W. Bush is elected as president of the United States and his hard-line stance towards North Korea coincides with the South''s economic crisis.

The public is imploring the president to stop staring at the stars and come down to earth. He has to switch his interest from foreign policy to the urgent issues at home.

He should have no difficulty in determining the first problems to tackle in view of the recent partisan brawl over the aborted bid to impeach the chief of the prosecution and the economic policymakers dilly-dallying over the fate of ailing companies.

A leader should have a vision of the future. And while some of Mr. Kim''s foreign policy objectives are admirable, domestic policy must take precedence at a time when the well-being of the people is at stake.

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