[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]What grade does Roh merit?

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]What grade does Roh merit?

The first anniversary of President Roh Moo-hyun’s inauguration on Feb. 25 stirred a flood of special reports on his first year in office. A look back at the last year, however, raises the most dreaded question of all for media hounds: is there anything to write about? Compared to the president-centered first years of his predecessors, President Roh’s first year has been uneventful, almost “presidentless.” The president’s low profile and the complexities of the times make his first year difficult to evaluate by traditional methods of adding up the number of successful reforms.
To be sure, President Roh has been active and busy. He began his term with a frontal attack on the establishment media. The attacks made him look petty, and he quickly backed off. His relations with the National Assembly deteriorated throughout the year, making it difficult for him to claim any legislative victories. His two major victories ― approval to send Korean troops to Iraq and passage of the free trade agreement with Chile ― belong to the area of foreign affairs. Both were controversial and caused friction between the president and his core supporters.
He has talked a great deal about the economy, but his vague policies have not inspired confidence. He has been active in foreign affairs, but produced no important breakthrough in reducing tension on the Korean Peninsula. His most important foreign policy accomplishment is improving relations with the United States while adamantly rejecting the use of military force against North Korea.
The past year sharpened divisions in Korean society. In the first part of the year, leftists and rightists demonstrated weekly over how best to deal with North Korea. The economic fissures in society sharpened as the weak economy left much of the middle class feeling poorer. The gap between the do-as-you-wish rules that politicians and big business follow and the rules that normal people are expected to observe made it seem as if there were two South Koreas. And the generation gap, which was crystallized in the election of 2002, remains as wide as ever.
And then there were gaffes. The first six months of Mr. Roh’s presidency saw a series of missteps that made many people wonder if the president was up to the job. The president appeared small and unprepared for the immense responsibilities of the office. His insecurities peaked with his sudden call last fall for a referendum on his first year in office.
If judged by leadership and accomplishments, President Roh deserves a gentleman’s “C” at best. If judged by the long-term implications of his presidency on society, his first year looks better. Mr. Roh did not come to office on a wave of desire for change or reform. He promised to continue most of the policies of the Kim Dae-jung administration, making him essentially conservative. Instead, he promised a new style of governing that would give society space to focus on the most important yet understated task of the times: 21st century nation-building.
When Koreans think of nation-building, they think of Park Chung Hee, but he was a nation builder in the 20th century paradigm of activist central government and rapid industrialization. His economic program worked wonders, but it did so under the iron hand of dictatorial rule. The challenge of the post-Park period has been to establish working democratic institutions while building on the economic base that Park built. With four successful presidential elections and transfers of power since democratization in 1987, Korea has become a stable democracy with its own democratic traditions.
The focus of democratization centered on electoral democracy and freedom of expression. Through it all, the culture of authoritarianism and the institutions of central rule remained intact. Roh Moo-hyun’s predecessors were all imperial presidents who wielded the power of the presidency freely. Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung brought to the presidency the strong style of leadership that they had developed as opposition leaders. Social institutions, meanwhile, remained rigidly hierarchical with authoritarian figures wielding power as little presidents.
The generational change that Mr. Roh’s election triggered brought change to many formally rigid institutions. The change in generations brought an alteration in values and ways of doing business. Openness, discussion and reflection ― all the things that President Roh has done in public ― are challenging authoritarian values. Building new institutions around these values that are befitting of a democratic society is the work of the 21st century nation-building.
President Roh deserves credit for putting new values at the center of public discourse through his words and actions. He deserves yet more credit for having the courage to hold back and let society go about the business of building new institutions.
The meaning of the first year of Mr. Roh’s presidency, then, lies in what he has not done, and for that his grade deserves to be raised to a “B.”

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.


by Robert J. Fouser
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