[OUTLOOK]What’s on the president’s mind?In 2001 I met President Roh Moo-hyun for the first time. He was then a senior member of the Millennium Democratic Party. I visited the party headquarters located in Yeouido and found Mr. Roh sitting alone inside a conference room. There were rumors that he had few friends and he indeed looked quite lonely. I felt sympathy for him. On the other hand, I was glad to see him. After all, he was a star politician who had done a great job while serving on the special committee investigating corruption by Chun Doo-hwan and his aides.
I introduced myself and gave him my business card. Then a weird thing happened. Out of the blue Mr. Roh said, “I do not have any hard feelings against the JoongAng Ilbo. But I cannot forgive this major daily.” I did not know how to react, but he went ahead and explained what happened between him and that specific daily newspaper. The story had already been known to the public. I wondered why he talked about this when we had just met each other, but I did not say anything. Several other journalists in the conference room approached us, wondering what was going on, and then left us, wearing a smile on their faces. I was slightly disappointed because there must be plenty of other topics to talk about, but he still clung to that story.
However, looking back on this incident, I suspect that perhaps that was Mr. Roh’s tactic. Soon he reemerged as a star politician who fought against conservative newspapers. People who were disappointed with corrupt and irresponsible dailies that had dominated the market sided with Mr. Roh ― a hero of the progressive forces. As Mr. Roh’s support base, called “Nosamo” in Korean, has backed him vigorously, his flaws and weak spots were easily forgotten.
In May 2003, I saw Mr. Roh again at a reception hall at the White House. He had then become the president of Korea. President Roh visited the United States and was having a press conference with Washington correspondents.
He had changed. The day before that press conference he was in New York. There, he even said that if the United States had not helped South Korea during the Korean War, he would now have been in jail as a political criminal. One correspondent said he seemed to acquiesce too much to the United States. President Roh answered back that there were many different ways to persuade a friend.
That was totally different from when he was running for the presidency and said, “What is the big deal about being anti-American?” I even respected him, believing that he was trying hard to stay moderate as the president of a country.
But the president had changed once again.
In November 2004 when he visited Los Angeles, he said there that it is quite reasonable for North Korea to try to keep its nuclear capacity because it is a means of self-defense. That was like asking, “What is the big deal that North Korea has nuclear capacity?” At that time, the Korean embassy in Washington had a hard time with damage control from Mr. Roh’s abrupt remark. Once again I became confused.
Although three and a half years have passed since President Roh assumed power, I still do not know what he is thinking, where he is taking our country and what he plans for the future.
The public does not seem to know either, gauging by his approval ratings.
Perhaps close aides to the president and the ruling Uri Party members do not know either. They also attack the president.
Sometimes I even worry whether President Roh has any plan at all for the future of the country.
The Roh administration has succeeded, without doubt, in ruining the wrongly established order, tearing down authoritarianism and investigating wrongdoings in the past. That’s one thing. But designing the future of the country, helping the Korean economy and equipping the young generation for global competition is quite another.
President Roh remained silent after North Korea test-fired its missiles over the East Sea on June 5. South Koreans felt insecure and wanted to hear from the commander-in-chief of the country’s army, but he said nothing. The Blue House instead scolded the media, asking, “Does the president need to say something to make the people feel unnecessarily insecure?”
One month later, President Roh has brought the issue of regaining wartime operational control to the surface, having a press conference with Yonhap News. The nation is confused.
One thing is clear. Issues that had bothered President Roh have disappeared, including the debate over North Korea’s missile launches and his conflict with the governing party.
President Roh must be a gambler, a very good one, indeed. However, his win is unlikely to last for long, because an increasing number of people have grown doubtful about the progressive force’s ability to manage the country.
What is he thinking about now after his recent vacation? I still do not know what is on his mind.
* The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Chong-hyuk