[Viewpoint]Being on top is a danger in itselfMost of the presidents of Korea share a strange common factor. They all risked their lives before being elected president. Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo led military coups, putting their lives at stake. Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung had brushes with death in the course of the struggle for democratization. Kim Young-sam fasted for 23 days, and Kim Dae-jung was kidnapped in Japan and barely escaped being executed. Kim Dae-jung even received a death sentence during the Chun Doo-hwan regime. Yoon Bo-seon, who served as the president of Korea during the parliamentary government system, and Choi Kyu-ha, who succeeded Park Chung Hee after his death, are different cases. In fact, they are the opposite. They were forced to step down because they did not risk their lives to resist the May 16 Coup and the Dec. 12 Coup, respectively.
It is hardly normal that becoming president requires you to risk your life, or that you can’t complete your term if you don’t risk your life.
After all, Korea’s modern history has been a series of turbulent moments. Nevertheless, history offers a message to the presidential hopefuls. Even though you don’t have to risk your life, you cannot be elected president unless you make every decision as if you were walking on the edge and devoting everything to the challenge. Former Prime Minister Koh Gun withdrew from the presidential race early on because he was not prepared to bet everything.
No individual, company or country can be the perennial front-runner. You are bound to be caught in the trap of being on top. With no one to challenge or catch up with, you increasingly become risk-averse, and when you become too big, you adapt to changes more slowly. So you are trapped in the comfortable life. The people in second or third place have a different story. They constantly focus on the vulnerable points of the front-runner, attack using all possible means and build power by merging with each other. That phenomenon is especially notable in the presidential race, where you win all or nothing. The runner-up is nothing but a loser, and your survival is not guaranteed. In the 2002 presidential race, Lee Hoi-chang failed to overcome the trap of being the front-runner and was defeated by Roh Moo-hyun, who successfully collaborated with another candidate and became the sole candidate in an opinion poll.
At the moment, former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak is the closest one to being in the trap of the top. Various opinion polls rate him as the overwhelming front-runner, and it is only natural he is tempted to be satisfied with the comfortable present. He already shows signs of being trapped. When President Roh proposed a constitutional revision to allow two consecutive four-year terms, Park Geun-hye immediately called him, “a very bad president.” However, Mr. Lee responded officially hours later. He could have been acting prudently, but if he was concerned about his safety, he is already in the trap of the top.
People have long talked about the “wall of entourages” in Mr. Lee’s campaign camp. When you are surrounded by an entourage, you lose the ability to adapt. It is also a warning sign that he displays a two-sided approach to the party regulations. If he wants to follow party regulations on the timing of the candidate’s election but hopes to change the rule on the methods of the primary, he lacks consistency. Korean citizens have a tendency to be generous to the weak, but stern toward the selfishness of the strong.
The supporters of Mr. Lee have proposed a scenario in which Mr. Lee is the presidential candidate, Son Hak-kyu the prime minister and Park Geun-hye the party leader.
However, many of them might not care whether it is a black cat or a white cat, as long as they can attain the power change. If they find a flaw in the course of verification, they can always turn their backs on Mr. Lee. Opinion polls have ranked him the favorite in the Honam region and the most progressive candidate, and those results can be burdensome. Mr. Lee is not progressive, and when the ruling party picks its presidential runner, the support from Honam can disappear anytime.
In a marathon, being the front-runner is a double-edged sword.
If the presidential election were held today or tomorrow, Mr. Lee would surely be elected. However, we have more than 320 days until Election Day. He cannot feel assured now that he has barely passed the barrier of “verification” proposed by Park Geun-hye. The attack in the form of verification is bound to return. His candidacy is at risk unless he firmly establishes the perception that he is strong in the primary and stronger in the main round. Whether he will be just a pacemaker or will become the winner depends on how he jumps over the trap of being the front-runner.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Du-woo
More in Columns
Tales of Chairman Lee
Chinese way of tackling challenges
Time to step up climate action
Finding our place
Diplomacy is about trust