[OUTLOOK]Picking our new leaderOne of the greatest things Korea learned after our soccer national team advanced to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup was that the people, especially the younger generation, were able to become one through shouting “Dae- han-min-guk.” Every single Korean citizen probably felt the unlimited pride that came with the shouts.
The interest surrounding the historical position and the achievements of Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, who played a crucial role in founding the nation and defending it from North Korea during the Korean War, has increased in recent days. It is reasonable to hold active discussions about the role a leader, especially the president, should assume during a time of national crisis. During the last month alone, Myongji University hosted an academic conference on “Syngman Rhee and Konrad Adenauer,” Yonsei University held one on “The National Administration Leadership of Syngman Rhee, Park Chung Hee and Kim Dae-jung,” while the Seoul Museum of History held a session on Syngman Rhee and the independence movement. The series of conferences suggests efforts to overcome the current crisis through reflecting on the wisdom of past leaders who exercised decisive leadership in overcoming difficult situations.
The leadership of Mr. Rhee and Konrad Adenauer of Germany, both responsible for the historic task of founding a country, gives us an exceptional lesson.
When Korea was freed from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, Mr. Rhee was faced with the worst-case scenario, as the nation was divided into North and South by the United States and the Soviet Union. Mr. Adenauer faced a similar situation, where he had to watch his nation split into East and West Germany under the rule of Allied forces as the defeated nation of World War II. The two political heroes, however, went on to establish their home nations. Mr. Rhee founded the Republic of Korea in 1948 and Mr. Adenauer founded the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. Born in 1875, Mr. Rhee was a year older than Mr. Adenauer and was able to bring legitimacy to the new nation through his experience as a leader in Korea’s anti-Japanese movement, while his German counterpart earned his through assuming the role of leading the anti-Nazi movement.
Mr. Rhee was inaugurated as president in 1948 while Mr. Adenauer became Germany’s first chancellor the following year, and both showed vigorous abilities as the former served 12 years and the latter 14 years in office. The two leaders also share a common feature as both played an important role in enacting and proclaiming the constitutions of their respective nations before stepping up as the country’s president and chancellor. But what allows us to remember both figures as historical leaders, regardless of their political evaluation, is that they were exceptional people who possessed political philosophies, unshakable beliefs, insights that enabled them to read the overall trends, the decisiveness to correctly decide the priority of national policies and the ability to carry out those policies.
Mr. Rhee and Mr. Adenauer both possessed a strong belief in the independence and unification of their fatherlands and the construction of a society that ensured the freedom of their people. The two also knew that it was best to connect the fates of Korea and Germany with that of the Western world, especially the United States. That is why both leaders extended the scope of their alliances to include Washington and eventually paved the road to national development. On the other hand, the decisions to establish independent countries and put the decisions into action were extremely intelligent and historical. They never looked back from the conclusion that their governments was the lone legitimate ones and that developing a strong and prosperous nation was the shortcut to reunification.
Of course they rejected any theories that suggested that a divided nation must keep a neutral position to keep hopes of unification alive. The unification of Germany back in 1990 dramatically proved that the decision was correct.
The great leadership that both leaders showed can be summarized by the following: First, the ability to precisely read the geographic conditions and the international situation. Second, decisiveness in selecting a policy to secure the national security and the freedom of the people despite maintaining the situation of a divided nation. Finally, the political ability to bring the people’s unity and mutual agreement.
Instead of worrying about the crisis in the current president’s leadership with a year left until the presidential elections, we should consider what standards to apply when selecting our next leader and retrace the lessons history teach us. Only intelligent people who learn from the past can pick a worthy leader.
*The writer, a former prime minister, is an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo