[OUTLOOK]It’s a tough job, but stop gripingWhether be it a modern-day president or the emperor of an ancient empire, the position of chief executive has always been lonely and stressful. Henry Kissinger, who was in Seoul last week as an American envoy to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, told me an interesting historical tidbit after a luncheon we attended.
When the Prussian king, Wilhelm II, complained to Otto von Bismarck that state affairs were troubling him and had kept him awake for three nights, Bismarck snapped that that was an occupational hazard of ruling, and incurred the king’s enmity. Bismarck had been the force behind the unification of Germany into a powerful empire.
It is natural that all Korean presidents have had to spend sleepless nights because of anxiety about numerous problems in our modern history. It is also small wonder that President Roh Moo-hyun, who is only five months into his term of office, frequently elaborates on how difficult his job of governing the nation is. Considering the transitional crisis we are facing, how could he expect to avoid such pain? The position of a president is inevitably difficult, and that is why the job is not for everyone. Once elected to take overall responsibility, the president needs to cope alone with difficult challenges. Understanding the difficulties he faces, we hope the president can wisely overcome the difficulties, although we are increasingly uneasy.
What President Roh is going through is a trial that results from confusion created by the democratization process that followed the nation’s successful break from remnants of authoritarianism. It is only natural that the democratization encouraged various classes and sectors to freely express their demands and opinions. The unhesitant eruption of demands by interest groups or regions is not necessarily undesirable in principle. The feuds and frictions between different groups and opinions, and the consequent social discord, could be considered an inevitable cost for general democratization and liberalization. However, the bigger problem is the lack of national consensus on how to resolve such feuds and frictions in a democratic manner. The situation where the president’s decisions are not accepted and he is forced to be accountable could appear extremely unreasonable to the president. That is why we hear him complain so often.
For instance, the endless disputes over the Saemangeum land reclamation project reveal what kind of predicament the president is facing. Whether they demand that the project be scrapped or want it continued, both sides raise their voices to push their position, show no flexibility and reason, which would lead to a conclusion reached through procedures of their choice. Both sides seemed to have excluded the possibility of showing flexibility, thinking it could make them look weak in the confrontation. In this situation, if the president sides with one group, the other will never accept the decision. We do not need to mention the pitiful position of the president, who will have to take responsibility for the decision. The selection of the site for the nuclear-waste treatment plant and the free-trade agreement with Chile give a similar agony to the president.
But these are not just the president’s problems alone. The political culture and institutions here have failed to create a national consensus of compromise and submission; instead, the extreme feuds and social ruptures are about to put the entire nation into jeopardy. Even in the political parties and the National Assembly, which is supposed to systematically handle democratic decision-making on state affairs, the virtues of making compromises and giving in have long been missing. The political failure is proof of history’s lesson that no democratic country without the foundation of a social contract can be politically stable. Korean democracy is facing a serious crisis, and the president is the first to take responsibility to lead the country out of trouble.
The citizens expect the president to use wisdom and willpower in the creation of a national consensus and in the implementation of decisions. No matter how lonely and difficult it may be, when the president rules out the possibility of dissension and confrontation, refrains from making immature and vain attempts to change the situation and seeks the development of the community through harmony and compromise, the country can take realistic steps to the grand goals of $20,000 per-capita national income, becoming the hub of Northeast Asia and establishing a permanent peace on the peninsula.
* The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo