Anchors aweighPresidents have played major roles in shaping the course of South Korea’s history.
In 1988, after 20 years of dictatorship, people directly elected their president.
It was the beginning of real democracy in the 5,000-year history of the Korean Peninsula.
Ten years later, Kim Dae-jung made history when he became president.
His victory in the 1999 election marked the first time in the 48 years since the establishment of the Republic of Korea that a peaceful transition of power from the governing to the opposition party had taken place.
Now for the first time, power has shifted from the Gyeongsang to the Jeolla provinces.
Another 10 years on, Korea finds itself at another historic crossing, closing a chapter in which fighting the past has left Korea negligent of its future.
Korea is now ushering in a new beginning as it ventures to become a fully developed country.
Where will the winds of change take Korea?
With Lee Myung-bak as captain of the good ship Korea, passengers are waiting with feelings of hope as well as anxiety.
The waves are high and the seas are deep, and the prospect of becoming a developed nation is a distant port.
China is pressing forward with its technology, labor and capital power, while Russia is far behind and we must hold hands again with the United States and Japan.
Furthermore, South Korea is burdened by North Korea and its nuclear weapons program and an economy on the brink of collapse.
While global competition is heating up day by day, the South Korean boat is tossed on the waves of the global economy.
The new captain announced his 747 vision during the presidential election campaign: 7 percent economic growth, $40,000 per capita gross domestic product and Korea becoming the world’s seventh-largest economy.
But as the global economy experiences stormier seas, 747 is now 647. Perhaps we might be looking at 538 or 439 in the near future. Therefore, passengers are clinging to the rails and eyeing their captain with some concern.
Comfort levels on the boat are also questionable. The first-class cabins are too expensive, second class is stifling and third is in steerage.
There is some good news on the horizon.
Some of the country’s conglomerates have said they will increase investment and hire more personnel.
Added to this, the government says it will strengthen public education.
However, it takes time to check that the coast is clear.
Passengers don’t know whether or not regulations will ease; unemployment will decrease; a liberalized education system will cut spending on private tutoring; English education problems will be solved; owning a home will become easier; life will improve for irregular workers; the free trade agreement with the United States will get ratified, and whether the grand canal project will fall or succeed.
The boat is plotting a course to becoming a developed country, but the route is shrouded in fog. Korea’s new captain is an experienced navigation officer. His former command of Hyundai Construction Co. and Seoul city government sailed well through rough waters.
Forty-seven percent of passengers were impressed enough to elect Lee as their captain.
But the size of Captain Lee’s new vessel is more substantial, and it takes greater know-how to steer in international seas.
Passengers have watched the new captain try out his ship over the past two months. They see that he spends less time in his bunk and is rarely far from the bridge.
But any seasoned tar will tell you that it is dangerous to set sail with too much haste.
Captain Lee must talk directly to the passengers. The transition committee was highly motivated but also too ambitious, but he treated his crew as if they were already commissioned officers, even before the personnel hearings at the National Assembly had concluded, he treated them as his ministers.
Passengers are now unsure about the new officers’ ethics and social responsibility.
The captain also has many personal defects. However, just because passengers elected him does not mean they will blindly accept his hand-picked navigators and engineers.
Passengers will closely monitor the captain’s every move.
Captain Lee is an emotional success story. There have been rough seas and some more placid voyages; there have been gray skies and clear blue days.
After 10 years of liberal government, South Korea is sharply divided.
The president must heal divisions and ensure no salt gets in old wounds.
If the president does not sail too swiftly into the wind, respect the National Assembly and a healthy media and hire a skillful, trustworthy crew, the SS Korea could eventually reach that distant port after all.
We hope that in five years’ time, this newspaper will publish a column entitled “As We Send this President to History,” we will be able to raise a flag that proudly declares this government’s success.