Aim the Bulldozer at the North’s economySo, after five years of an intellectual in the Blue House, Korea gets a “bulldozer” ― that’s Lee Myung-bak’s sobriquet, in tribute to his get-it-done history as a construction executive and mayor of Seoul.
Not everyone will agree with the description of Roh Moo-hyun as an intellectual. He never went to college and schooled himself to pass the lawyer’s exam.
But intellectuals are people who are more at home with ideas than with the daily mess of living. Democracy and justice were Roh’s big ideas. He spent years in court defending victims of Korea’s dictatorial government and served his nation well. Once he was flukishly elected to the presidency, he used his office as a platform to right history’s wrongs. That’s how the campaigns to stigmatize “collaborators” in the long-ago Japanese colonial period and to confiscate the inheritance of putatively ill-gotten gains from their descendants came about.
Koreans have long memories and show a considerable appetite for making something concrete out of abstractions such as justice and democracy. But only those in their upper 60s and beyond have any first hand experience of the Japanese occupation. And perhaps five years of intellectual self-indulgence is enough. At least the voters apparently thought so.
There is nothing intellectual about a bulldozer; its only virtues are practical. Bulldozers move earth. They reshape it. Depending on their guidance, bulldozers may destroy or create.
The main election issue, the pundits opine, was the economy, which is said to have been neglected for the past five years. Actually, the Korean economy grows every year; some countries in Europe wish they could say the same. But it should help to have a president in the Blue House who regards business as a partner of government, not an adversary. Whether the Korean economy can be bulldozed into better shape is something we will find out in the coming years.
The other principal expectation of the Lee presidency is that he will adopt a tougher line on North Korea. It would be nice to see a South Korean president stand up and say “no” to some of the North’s more outrageous demands and shenanigans, but I doubt that toughness by itself will be an effective policy. North Korea is not a country that lets itself be bulldozed.
Still, if Pyongyang really is spreading nuclear or missile technology, as had been alleged repeatedly, particularly in dealings with Libya, Pakistan and Syria, a tough guy in the Blue House may call the regime to account, something Lee’s predecessors were reluctant to do for fear of interrupting the dialogue. Dialogue, unproductive or not, became an end in itself in inter-Korean relations.
Toughness may have its uses, but sometimes it may also damage South Korea’s interests. The Grand National Party made a great fuss about “rewarding bad behavior” when the rail link between North and South began regular service recently. But don’t expect President Lee to cut that link for the evanescent advantage of appearing tough. There’s too much good business at stake in the daily run to Kaesong.
In fact, it is possible that Lee’s business background can lead to creative new approaches to Pyongyang. Opportunities abound ― at least in the dreams of capitalists ― for South Korean business in the North, where labor is cheap, trained and disciplined. Moreover, if anything remains of the dream of Korea as the “hub of Northeast Asia,” something will have to be done about the black hole in the North. These are grand projects suitable for the ambitions of a bulldozer.
For too long South Koreans, traumatized by witnessing the costly and painful reunification of Germany, have shuddered at the prospect of bringing the two Koreas together. But there are also opportunities in promoting as much economic integration as Kim Jong-il will allow.
Certainly, he won’t allow much opening, for fear of unleashing expectations among his own population that might threaten his regime’s stability. But Kim is 65, in uncertain health; no man is immortal. If Lee gets a chance to rebuild the North’s electricity grid or strengthen its transportation network, why should anyone think he is “rewarding bad behavior”? Rather, he would be laying the groundwork for the joint future of both Koreas.
Does this sound like the old Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae-jung, continued by President Roh? It does, because there really is no alternative to working out ways to get along with Kim Jong-il. If the efforts of those two presidents resulted mainly in gestures, that seemed at the time a necessary start to the building of trust.
We know now that Kim Jong-il is not interested in building trust, but he does want to keep his regime afloat. He will continue to accept any gestures, sentimental or monetary, that the South cares to provide. But perhaps Lee’s supposed toughness will mean more concrete poured in the North and fewer joint marches under a common flag.
And what of human rights? The problem will never go away. If South Korea pours investment funds into the North, it will be accused of enriching its business class through exploitation of captive North Korean labor. If it withholds funds, it will be accused of seeking to starve the North into submission. Best simply to follow the course that seems likely to lead to the best outcome for all Koreans eventually ― economic engagement.
Although the Roh administration thought otherwise, engagement need not necessarily look away from rights abuses in the North. A good first step might be to support, if only tacitly, the efforts of human-rights groups to publicize the facts about life in North Korea. President Roh’s aversion to rocking the boat of inter-Korean reconciliation has led to disgraceful scenes, such as the beating by police of the German rights crusader Norbert Vollertsen.
“I was expelled from North Korea,” Vollertsen said at the time, several years ago, “but never beaten. I had to come to so-called democratic South Korea to be beaten by police.”
Perhaps the supposed tough guy Lee will restrain his police, reasoning that activists can be a parallel track, unsanctioned by government, in the effort to support human rights and bring change to North Korea. In such situations, what is tough, what is soft?
Intellectuals, many of them, dwell in the past. They love pondering abstractions and alternatives, debating the “what ifs?” of history. Businessmen, the best ones, learn from the past, but they look to the future. Instead of a president who wants to rectify the past, Korea needs a leader who has a clear vision of the country’s future and some ideas for getting there. Let us hope that the Bulldozer becomes that leader.
*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily.
By Harold Piper