For a Leader to Recover His Credibility

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For a Leader to Recover His Credibility

President Lyndon Johnson defeated Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in a landslide victory by winning 61 percent of the popular votes and 486 of 538 electoral votes in the 1964 U.S. presidential election. His re-election in 1968 also appeared guaranteed at the beginning of his first full term as president. He won the passage of far-reaching legislation for his domestic programs, called the Great Society, and strong support from African-Americans for passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made voting rights universal.

Despite such achievements, he became trapped in a credibility gap and could not seek re-election in 1968. In the process of expanding U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, he failed to make his policies clear and thus lost credibility with the American public. Credibility is the basic requisite of leadership. Once a leader loses credibility, the vision he proposes appears to be an illusion or mirage and the policies he pursues lose public support.

Everyone is worrying about how the Korean economy will fare this year. Anxieties about the economy can easily turn into a panic.

If the economy suffers, the government''s sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea, which is based on buying peace with money, can suffer a setback. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il might change his mind about inter-Korean reconciliation if South Korea can no longer afford to deliver a cornucopia of aid and the incoming Bush administration adopts a hard-line policy towards North Korea.

The root of these concerns is the Kim Dae-jung administration''s crisis of credibility. The core of the problems besetting the nation today is the loss of public credibility by Mr. Kim, the administration and the ruling party. The public did not trust the results of the prosecution''s investigations into the so-called Minkgate scandal that involved a former prosecutor general''s wife. Even the court threw out the prosecution''s conclusion of its investigations. The recent defection of three ruling Millennium Democratic Party lawmakers to the splinter United Liberal Democrats is also seen as a low trick aimed at reestablishing a political alliance between the two former coalition partners. All this is a heavy burden for the MDP, which did not have much credibility in the first place.

When the prosecution began investigating a string of high-profile corruption scandals, the public jumped to the conclusion that the investigations would be biased and fail to bring the truth to light if someone high in the echelons of power were looking after the interests of the implicated politicians. Needless to say, law and order cannot be maintained under such conditions.

Upon returning from the historic North-South summit talks in Pyongyang, President Kim Dae-jung earnestly explained the changes in North Korea. He said North Korea now agrees to the continued stationing of U.S. forces in South Korea and that it renounced the federation system as a unilateral reunification formula.

Not many people accepted his statements at face value, however. If Mr. Kim and his administration have such a low level of credibility, they will have a hard time continuing with their aid-first, benefits-later North Korea policy if the economy deteriorates even slightly.

Mr. Kim, the administration and the ruling party''s priority task in the new year is recovering credibility. Since power is the means and also the goal of politics, it is natural for Mr. Kim and the MDP to prepare for keeping power in the 2002 presidential election. In order to maintain their hold on power, it is necessary for them to resolve problems through political means. To that end, it is necessary to win public support, which comes fundamentally from credibility. Mr. Kim and the administration''s credibility is so low that it has exceeded the danger level. The administration would also admit that its credibility is in crisis, even based on a generous self-appraisal.

Francis Fukuyama, the author of "The End of History," grouped China and Korea as the societies with low levels of trust in his second book "Trust." Mr. Fukuyama believes the Korean culture exhibits strong family exclusiveness and low levels of non-kinship trust. In the English language, trust is a higher concept than credibility. A low level of trust is the result of low credibility. If Mr. Fukuyama''s analysis is correct, South Korean society has a culturally weak infrastructure for building trust.

The credibility crisis Mr. Kim and the administration are facing is not culturally predestined, however. They would not be suffering from such difficulties had their North Korea policy been more transparent, had the prosecution''s investigations been more fair, and had they not resorted to Machiavellian tactics of "lending" their lawmakers to the ULD so that the minor conservative party could have enough seats to qualify as a parliamentary negotiating body.

Judging from Mr. Kim''s recent remarks, he seems to be aware of the essential cause of the current crisis. Before devising and implementing key policies, and before seeking public support, he should try much harder to create conditions for recovering his credibility. From the people''s point of view, it is extremely tiring not to have trust in the government.

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