[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Roh is using street-smart logicThe past week has been a groundbreaking one in the history of the presidency in Korea. President Roh Moo-hyun has opened up about his feelings and concerns unlike anyone that has come before him. He has expressed dismay at the voracity of the nongovernmental organizations and lamented the difficulties of the job. In an e-mail sent to government bureaucrats, he promised to approach reform with the “eyes of a tiger and the pace of ox.” A photograph of him riding a bicycle graced Web sites and newspapers.
This is new stuff for Koreans, who are used to distant, imperious presidents. Dramatic changes in leadership style require a period of adjustment. The mainstream media has been having fun with the president, hinting that all the talk means that he isn’t quite up to the job. Real presidents glower instead of talk. In the all-important Korean street, however, the president is faring better because many people find the openness refreshing and are willing to give the new president the benefit of the doubt.
The unusual presidential soul-baring sheds light on the man, who still remains somewhat of a mystery. His comments, particularly in light of several controversial decisions, show that he differs more from his predecessors than previously suspected. The key difference is the role of logic in decision making.
The word “logic” has odd connotations in Korea. It implies intelligence and modernity, but it also implies distance and distrust. In the three previous elections that included Kim Dae-jung, glossy news magazines often used the word “logical” to fill in the box for weak points in Kim’s character. Logical also implies a rigidity that makes a person stubborn and unwilling to bend rules.
So far, Roh Moo-hyun has relied on logic to make two difficult and politically risky decisions. The first was his approval of the special prosecutor to investigate the money that was sent to North Korea on the eve of the inter-Korean summit in June 2000. This alienated voters from the Jeolla region who voted for Roh as the successor to and protector of Kim Dae-jung. A politician of times past would have vetoed the measure in order to protect his political base, but Mr. Roh kept his promise to battle corruption differently than his predecessors did.
The second decision was his support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq and for sending noncombatant troops to symbolize that support. Again, a lesser politician would have looked at polls showing that 85 percent of Koreans were against the war and refused to support it or send troops. Mr. Roh did both against strong opposition from his young “2030 generation” supporters.
In both cases, Mr. Roh sided with the opposition Grand National Party’s (GNP) position, raising the political risks yet higher. In both cases, however, the president was swayed by the logic of Korea’s national interest. Holding firm against corruption early in his administration is critical to setting the right tone for the rest of his administration. Overcoming the cycle of corruption and disgrace that has plagued every president since the Republic was founded will help Korea mature as a democracy and as a society. Likewise, siding with the world’s only superpower shores up confidence in the economy and reassures foreign investors.
President Roh’s adherence to logic makes him very stubborn but open-minded at the same time. He is open to listening to logic and is known to enjoy a good debate, but once his mind is made up, he doesn’t look back.
Trying to read between the lines, however, most in the media expected him to cave on the special prosecutor and on sending troops to the Persian Gulf, but his tenacity surprised not only the media but the public as well. And for all the noise, the public is sticking with the president because the people trust him more than the noise-makers.
The Blue House last week hinted that the president might take a break from talking after such a busy week. That’s fine because his actions and words have shown that the logic of national interest, not applied ideology of the left or right, is guiding the president’s decisions.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser