[Overseasview]Grace notes on an electionSouth Koreans have given Americans something to celebrate this holiday season -- a successful presidential election. Press reports have focused on the unpopularity of outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun. There has also been an emphasis on the legal problems of President-elect Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party.
Media analysts fret about relatively low voter turnout and literal political combat. A physical brawl on the floor of the national legislature provided photo ops as well as critical commentary.
Such negative notes miss the fundamental point that an orderly democratic process, carried out according to law, has once again been demonstrated in a country that until relatively recently was governed by a military dictatorship.
A total of 10 presidential candidates ran in the election. As in the United States today, a notably large number of contenders sought the top office. In addition to Lee, there were two principal candidates: Chung Dong-young of the United New Democratic Party and the independent Lee Hoi-chang. Roh Moo-hyun was restricted by the constitution to a single term in office.
There are noteworthy personal as well as policy differences between the outgoing and incoming presidents. In style, Roh tends toward a mild, even cerebral, demeanor. Lee Myung-bak is a veteran of big business, specifically as head of the construction and engineering arm of the powerful Hyundai industrial conglomerate, and embraces action.
Lee faces charges of personal corruption that have led to the appointment of a special counsel, an embarrassing complication. He has stated explicitly that he will resign if convicted.
South Korea’s capitalism is very new. Until the end of World War II Korea was a peasant economy, oppressed by very harsh Japanese colonial occupation. New capitalism usually involves particularly intense competition for growth and profit, with modern legal procedures very rudimentary or totally absent.
Lee remains innocent until proven guilty, and the fact that government authorities are willing to pursue legal procedures against the president is strong testimony to contemporary strength of the rule of law.
Criticizing President Roh for hurting the economy is overdone, given the steady growth that has occurred under his watch. There has not been a repetition of the flight of capital from South Korea that occurred a decade ago as part of the very serious Asian crisis. At that time, high-risk government policies in Southeast Asia sparked financial fright, and money flight, throughout the region.
Roh’s fiscal prudence in giving priority to a balanced budget is defensible given this history. Public restlessness not about recession, but lack of even greater growth, reflects the high expectations of democratic electorates on both sides of the Pacific. Again, the underlying lesson is positive, in that this reflects the fact that prosperity has now become the status quo.
Opposition attacks on the Roh government for seeking accommodation with the North, and being too polite while doing so, purchased political support for Lee but even now seem dated. Last summer, Pyongyang agreed to a United Nations inspection of nuclear reactors. The much-maligned liberal Sunshine Policy regarding the North actually produced meaningful diplomatic daylight.
The United States played a very important role in this by declaring Banco Delta Asia, based in Macao, a renegade institution assisting illegal financial activities by Pyongyang. American businesses were banned from dealing with BDA, others followed suit, and the Macao government froze $25 million in North Korean funds. Washington then offered to assist in returning the money if North Korea would desist its nuclear development.
In this context, President Lee’s business experience may prove a very great asset in office. As the BDA case illustrates, Pyongyang governs a very weak, corrupt economy. There is no evidence of imminent collapse in the North, but the status quo cannot continue indefinitely. Economic carrots, readily available in rich and productive South Korea, may finally bring dramatic change to the North.
Dwight Eisenhower ended the Korean War, then immediately undertook a massive comprehensive effort to develop educational and economic as well as political resources in South Korea.
South Korea owes a lot to Ike’s insight, and so do we Americans.
*The writer is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. He can be reached at email@example.com.
by Arthur I. Cyr