[NOTEBOOK]A Korean plutocrat or populist?

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[NOTEBOOK]A Korean plutocrat or populist?

"I have a dream," said Chung Mong-joon, the lawmaker and a vice president of the world soccer governing body, during his speech at a meeting of his political supporters last December. Quite obviously, he was quoting Martin Luther King, the American human rights activist.

"The Chinese character 'mong' in my name stands for dream," he assured.

At the meeting, he did not say what that dream was. But it probably was not the Korean team's advancing to the quarterfinal of the World Cup games.

In fact, Mr. Chung reportedly is planning to declare next month his candidacy for president. No chief of a conglomerate, in the history of the 20th century, has ever been successful in a bid to win a presidential election.

Back in 1992, H. Ross Perot, an American multibillionaire, and Chung Ju-yung, the late chief of Hyundai Corporation, ran for president. Both failed. Perhaps the only exception is the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. But even that can be understood under the context of deep-rooted political corruption in Italy and the collusion between Italian politics and business.

As the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said, under the circumstances Mr. Chung is in the best shape at the moment to run for president.

Lawmakers of the Millennium Democratic Party are busy shaking up their candidate ,who has been elected through a democratic procedure. The Grand National Party, which has been hit with a hammer over draft-dodging allegations of the son of its candidate, Lee Hoi-Chang, seems to have difficulty getting things together. After 400 years, Korean politicians repeat the same drama of fighting for power as their king lies on his deathbed. Korean citizens cannot help but feel disillusioned observing the situation.

For Mr. Chung, however, fate smiles on him because of the success of the Korean soccer team at the World Cup tournament and the turbulent situation of national politics in which he can get the third party's profit. Perhaps the will of heaven is on his side.

Regardless of what he says, Mr. Chung is the richest politician in Korea. The properties he has reported to the National Assembly alone are valued at 172 billion won ($143 million). He is the 27th wealthiest man in Korea, according to a recent report by Equitable, a company that supplies information about large stockholders in Korea. He insisted on describing himself as a lawmaker who had been working for the nation since the 13th National Assembly rather than as a chief of a conglomerate. But in the eyes of ordinary citizens, is he just a politician with some money?

No laws stop wealthy people from becoming politicians and running for president. One can even argue that someone like Mr. Chung can stay away from corruption because he does not have to turn to others for money. But what stopped his father and Mr. Perot from becoming president is the pessimism the general public holds about the relationship between money and power.

Mr. Chung has said that "It would be politicians' responsibility when young Koreans who are seriously thinking of immigration argue that the reason for their leaving is not because they are weary of the life here, but because they don't see dreams for their future in Korea."

His point is well taken. But would young Koreans see dreams and hopes in a society where only people who have money can obtain power?

If Mr. Chung seriously wants his dream to come true, he must offer dreams and hopes for the young generations in Korea. It would be naive if he argues that half of those dreams have been given already through the World Cup. He must make his position clear for the majority of Koreans who look at Mr. Chung as the son of plutocrats. He must be able to provide options that can bring an end to political factions and structures of corruption in Korea.

If he runs for president by establishing a new party with participation of people he borrowed from here and there and with the "I-have-nothing-to-loose" attitude in mind, relying on a sense of destiny, he is likely to follow in the footsteps of his father.

Before deciding to run in the presidential election, I hope Mr. Chung looks back on his life, asking whether he can produce such a vision.


The writer is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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