[OUTLOOK]Live by democracy, die by democracyPresidents have to think of more than one thing at a time. The people who elect presidents usually have only one thing in mind. That is a problem for President Roh Moo-hyun.
President Roh wants many things, and they interlock. One of his goals is a more just distribution of society’s bounty. So far he doesn’t talk about expropriating individual wealth or overriding the market, but about making the market work better so that its fruits are not allocated by regional or school affiliation but flow to the populace as a whole.
As an American, I find it refreshing to hear a politician talk about improving the overall function of society, rather than simply warping it to benefit favored constituents. The great Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko once wrote mockingly that the motto of his city was “Ubi Est Mea?” ― Where’s Mine? Actually, it is the motto of most Americans, and, alas, of most Koreans, too.
But not, so far, of President Roh. He seems to think himself the president of all Koreans, not just of the students, labor unions and Nosamo (“People who love Roh Moo-hyun”) enthusiasts who elected him.
Mr. Roh said in the campaign that he wants to increase Korea’s “natural” growth rate from 5 percent to 7 percent. Happy talk, politician-speak, many economists scoffed. But Mr. Roh insisted that he wasn’t talking about driving the economic engine beyond its limits, but improving its performance by bringing new resources into play. Two of these were increased labor participation by women and state support for research and development.
The third engine for future growth is the vision of Korea as “Hub of Northeast Asia.” For years now, Korean planners have been drawing circles on the map and noting that Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Vladivostok, Osaka and other cities are all satellites in a hypothetical Seoular system.
And my navel is the center of the universe. It’s easy to dismiss Mr. Roh’s vision as so much blue-sky dreaming. But what if the North Korea problem could be solved? Because that’s the other thing that’s at the Hub of Northeast Asia ― a gigantic economic dead spot, stagnant as the Sargasso Sea.
So in the Roh presidency, the North Korea issue is not only a security matter but a knot that must be untangled if Mr. Roh is to redeem his campaign promise of a fairer, more prosperous South Korea.
That is why ― not because he is kowtowing to the White House ― Mr. Roh has repeatedly told Pyeongyang that it must choose between its nuclear program and a stable future on a prosperous Korean Peninsula. It’s not a question of “hard line” of “soft line.” Mr. Roh has a goal he is trying to reach ― and picking a fight with America won’t move him toward the goal.
But many of his followers don’t see the linkage. They keep track of one issue at a time, and they are creatures of habit. They voted for Mr. Roh to give the United States a black eye, but he was nice to George Bush. They chose Mr. Roh because he was pro-labor, and now the civil servants and the teachers are presenting the bill.
Life is like this for any democratic president, of course, but a president trying to run a “participatory government” is going to have an especially hard time.
Much has been made of the fact that Mr. Roh came to office free of “baggage” ― commitments to powerful interest groups. He is the first Korean president elected on his own, not as the representative of a region or an institution, such as the Army. Mr. Roh organized his victory by going over the heads of interest groups, directly to “the people,” who were mobilized on the Internet.
Mr. Roh’s continuing instinct for plebiscitary politics showed this month when he sent an e-mail to 5.3 million Koreans, warning them of “weeds” in the political garden. Opposition politicians felt the sting. They foresee a Blue House mass campaign to pick them off individually in next year’s National Assembly elections.
But “participatory government” is a two-edged sword. “The people” are asking Mr. Roh, “Ubi est mea?” Several recent comments indicate that “the people” are getting him down. Complaining Wednes-day of all the groups trying to muscle their way to concessions from the Blue House, Mr. Roh said, “I feel a sense of crisis that I can no longer be president.”
Live by democracy, die by democracy. It’s not easy being a democratic president. But we can respect Mr. Roh for trying.
* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Hal Piper