A networked president

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A networked president

The year of the presidential election has dawned. Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun are the three most recent presidents. Years down the road, when the modern history of Korea is compiled, these three presidents will be recorded as ones who tried to clean up the past rather than paving the way for the future. Over the past half-century, Korea has exerted all her energy on establishing the security and economy that befit a modern nation. But the achievement did come with a price. Political repression, economic polarization and social conflict were some of the side effects, and the three presidents were expected to resolve those issues.
High expectations only brought bigger disappointments. Calls for self-reliance have escalated the risk of isolation in international relations. The theory of simple arithmetic equality is faced with stunted economic growth and an ironic possibility of worsened polarization. In other words, attempts to resolve problems have begat new problems.
The emergence of new problems is calling for a new type of president, someone with a forward-looking agenda rather than one who clings to the past. These three presidents all talked about the future, but globalization, the age of information and a Northeast Asian hub all became catchy buzzwords. Because those three had been so busy fighting off the side effects of modernization, they hardly had time to prepare policies and concepts for a better future. Now is the time to elect a president who has been thinking about the future. The new president must transcend the petty debates of today. On this New Year’s Day, the presidential hopefuls must start thinking about important tasks for the future of the country in the 21st century.
First and foremost, working in an external environment conducive to the recovery of the Korean economy is critical. As the reality is demonstrating, a president who is caught between self-reliance and alliance is a president who is not qualified to lead 21st-century Korea. In the name of cleaning up the past to help bring self-reliance, the Korea-Japan and the Korea-U.S. alliances have been severely damaged. In addition to restoring relations with those two nations, we need to be concerned about how to manage our relationship with China.
This means we need a president who is able to think in terms of networks. The concept of the Korean network should begin with the network connecting Korea, Japan and the United States, and another covering Korea and China, and how to best link them up. Also, there are global networks and cyber networks with which to deal.
The security concerns on the peninsula are another area where a new way of thinking is necessary. The days of singing “Our wish is unification” are over. And the idea that a North-South summit will be the antidote to all problems has turned out to be a mere fantasy.
The peoples on this peninsula are hoping for a unification where everyone is well off, and there is only one way to achieve that: by engaging North Korea into the global network. Unification is a small part of the process. For that to materialize, the South’s policy on North Korea should be redesigned to help the North to change from a pro-nuclear, military regime to a non-nuclear, open-minded administration willing to undertake reforms.
For South Koreans, the most direct concerns as they welcome the new year are the economy and education. The government’s attempts to narrow the gap between the wealthy and the poor and among the many levels of education with archaic thinking has only created more problems: loss of the momentum of economic growth and the leveling of the educational playing field by lowering standards. Unlike those in religion, politicians are assessed on results, not on intentions. The new president will have a historical burden: introducing a new way of thinking where attempts to resolve problems from modernization will not generate even more issues.
Mr. Roh should be the last president trying to clean up the past. At a time when others are looking forward, turning our focus from the past to the future is necessary for our survival.
The historical swing that our people are riding has already begun moving in that direction. On this New Year’s Day, the presidential hopefuls must once again think about where they are heading.


*The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ha Young-sun
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