[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Leadership crisis can be beatenPyeongchang’s narrow loss of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games to Vancouver is the best news out of Korea in a long time.
Olympics watchers were surprised when Pyeongchang, an unknown city with no Olympic sports facilities, got more votes than Vancouver or Salzburg on the first ballot and came in a close second in the final vote. Pyeongchang’s surprisingly strong showing proved that Koreans could achieve the unexpected, against great odds, when they rally around a common goal.
The rest of the news out of Korea paints a picture of a nation in crisis.
Frequent and often violent strikes compound concern over an economy that has weakened at an unexpectedly rapid pace. Inter-Korean relations remain in limbo as investigations of the payments to North Korea ahead of the June 2000 summit drag on and as worries about North Korea’s nuclear intentions build.
Ideological conflict has moved from the political arena into the heart of society, turning schools and TV programs into venues for agenda advancement.
Like the United States in the late 1970s, Korea finds itself facing a combined crisis of leadership and confidence.
In 1976, the American people elected Jimmy Carter, an outsider who promised “government as good as the people.” Carter’s first act as president was to walk from the Capitol to the White House, sending a signal that the imperial presidencies that lied about Vietnam and Watergate were now history. After a strong start, Carter became bogged down in the details of policy and failed to develop a working relationship with Congress. In foreign policy, reality forced him to back away from his signature human rights policy.
By 1979, the American economy was in a tailspin and the hostage crisis in Iran was dominating the news. After promises of a new beginning, Americans found themselves in a new leadership-confidence crisis and turned to the conservative Ronald Reagan in 1980 out of desperation.
Korea in the summer of 2003 is in a similar leadership-confidence crisis. Like Jimmy Carter, President Roh has tried to dismantle the imperial presidency in symbol and substance; his warm and friendly way of speaking is as refreshing to Koreans as Carter’s walk to the White House was to Americans in the mid-1970s. As the bad news has piled up, however, the new president is starting to wear thin. Six months into his presidency, his popularity has fallen to levels far below the approval ratings of his recent predecessors at a similar point in their terms.
More important, the president’s words no longer carry much weight because he changes his stance on issues so often that nobody really knows where he stands. Expressions of frustration and self-doubt have left the public wondering if he is really up to the job.
The lack of leadership at the top breeds a broader crisis of confidence throughout the nation’s society.
Deep down, Koreans fear that their 40-year struggle to turn the country into a prosperous democracy is in danger of falling apart, much as Americans felt that their prosperity was under threat in the late 1970s. Ironically, the crisis of confidence gripping Korea today is greater than during the depths of the economic crisis in 1998.
The difference between 1998 and 2003 is leadership. In 1998, President Kim Dae-jung focused on two big ideas: economic reform and inter-Korean reconciliation. Both ideas had to be balanced with practicality, which forced Kim to weaken some economic reforms to speed recovery, but all other policy came from these ideas. Efforts to promote “culture industries” were designed to create jobs and attract investment at the same time.
Inter-Korean reconciliation aimed to help reduce tension on the peninsula, thus attracting more foreign investment while inspiring confidence in a Korean-led policy initiative. The two ideas worked together to create optimism when it was needed most.
Ultimately, leadership is about big ideas rather than style. Carter failed because he lacked big ideas that met the needs of his time. His interest in style and details blinded him, and when it was too late, he blamed his troubles on an amorphous “national malaise” and then wondered why the voters threw him out of office.
Roh Moo-hyun need not become Korea’s Jimmy Carter because he is still new to the job.
To restore faith in his leadership, however, he must show that he understands the needs of the times, not the ideological desires of vocal groups, and offer big ideas to meet them. He must be dogged in stirring up public support for his big ideas, leaving discussion of style to the pundits and of matters of detail to his cabinet.
The rest, complete with unexpected successes, will follow.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Robert J. Fouser