[SCRIVENER]If Roh listens, people will followIn one of his victory speeches, Roh Moo-hyun said that as president, he'd like to pop out occasionally from the Blue House to a roadside tent for a spot of soju with the people. Somehow, I can't see that happening. The ajumma will freak when an advance team bursts in and sweeps the bucket of sea cucumbers for hidden explosives.
Still, it's a nice thought. And a common one. Of previous presidents, Roh Tae-woo (no relation, as far as I know) billed himself as the "ordinary man" with big ears who listened to people. Kim Young-sam served up noodles in the Blue House and Kim Dae-jung was and is a champion of the worker. But I have to say there's something different about Roh Moo-hyun. He comes across as a personable man who gets on with people, rather than someone who likes the idea of "the people" in principle but only actually has time for the few who are useful. You know what I mean?
My guess is that he falls into the "Active-Positive" category of political leaders, according to the types identified by James David Barber in his classic book, "The Presidential Character." He's "active" in that he has things he wants to do and will initiate ideas and pursue his program, like Kim Dae-jung, but unlike, say, Roh Tae-woo, who let the work come to him. And he's "positive" in that he looks happy with life and comfortable with power. He's not the driven Nixon-type who's somehow never satisfied.
Also, Mr. Roh has arrived out of the political ranks by a process more democratic and humbling than ever before, having been selected through a primary vote (two, if you count the one with Chung Mong-joon). This method, used for the first time, has broken the factional boss system and has left his party's leaders, who thought they were "senior" to him, somewhat nonplussed. All this is good for Korea. But will it be enough for him to escape the curse of the Korean presidency? You may have noticed that the outgoing president, Kim Dae-jung, has a very low approval rating. His stock is so low, in fact, that he's virtually been de-listed. What a change from five years ago when his approval was up there in the 80s or 90s. The pattern was the same for his two predecessors.
The reasons for this curse are difficult to fathom. If you ask people why they disapprove of Kim Dae-jung, they can't tell you, and if you remind them that he's stabilized a bankrupt economy, started the reconciliation with North Korea, fostered the Internet boom, reformed the banking system, improved women's rights and won the Nobel Peace Prize, they turn irrational on you.
This has the hallmarks of a spiritual problem. Indeed, the fact is that Koreans are haunted by the ghost of Park Chung Hee. The father of modern Korea shuffles and whispers in their minds, telling them that presidents have to match up to his nation-building standard. And so far none has stopped to ask how that is possible when you're limited to a single, five-year term, when you have to persuade rather than issue orders, and when, anyway, did the nation get built? In other words, no one has articulated the limitations of the democratic presidency. Instead, they imply with grand egoistic visions －－ restructuring politics, ending corruption, unifying with North Korea, saving the planet and greening the galaxy －－ that they have unlimited power. They raise expectations and then fail to follow through.
Mr. Roh is in a position to exorcise the ghost. As he sits down to bullet-point out his inauguration speech, he should avoid over-promising, avoid implying that he alone can achieve things, and avoid giving deadlines. Instead, he needs to figure out how to make his "New Politics" a collective, not a presidential effort, and to remind people that it's going to be a tough job. Something like, "We plan to move the government from Seoul to Daejeon, but God knows when it'll happen. In this process I have nothing to offer but five years of toil, tears, sweat and blood. So, ask not what Daejeon can do for you, ask what you can do for Daejeon."
My God, I'm a natural. If Mr. Roh wants to drop the soju plan and pop out for a Guinness instead, I'll write the speech for free.
by Michael Breen
* The writer is managing director of Merit/Burson-Marsteller and author of "The Koreans." He is a member of the JoongAng Daily ombudsman committee.