[Indepth interview]Visioning Korea s future

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[Indepth interview]Visioning Korea s future

They are tireless workers; they are a band of neoconservatives the new administration is often described by the same traits that have long marked President Lee Myung-bak, whose reputation for bull-headed determination and his relentless work ethic has earned him the moniker The Bulldozer.

Ahn Byong-man, 67, disagrees with that collective portrayal. What they share, he said, is creative pragmatism, which the president has adopted as the catchphrase for the five years that Lee will be in office.

How does Ahn know that? It s his job to help the president map out the guideline for his administration. Lee has named Ahn the chairman of the new Presidential Council for National Future and Vision, one of two presidential councils formed by Lee to help and advise him. The other body is the Presidential National Competitiveness Council.

Ahn is a political scientist who has twice served as president of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is currently the chairman of the Fulbright Commission in Korea.

He explained his work for the administration in an interview last week, just after the council held its first meeting with the president at the Blue House. According to Ahn, the meeting was very creative and animated. The names of some who were at the meeting give an indication of the special contribution that the council will be making. These included Guy Sorman, a French economist and philosopher; Ahn Chul-soo, chairman of the board of directors of AhnLab Inc., one of Korea s first-generation IT startups; and the singer and producer Park Jin-young.

Q. What did you talk about?

A. This council is literally in charge of drawing up the future and vision for the Lee Myung-bak administration. The other council [on national competitiveness] is in charge of diagnosing where we stand now. One of the main problems we have now are regulations on corporate activities that are limiting big and small corporations chances to grow more. Our task is to project answers for such issues based on the goal of making Korea a developed nation.

But, as President Lee pointed out during the meeting, one of the things we want to keep in mind is that the future policies should be fun and at the level that can capture the imagination of the young generation.

We have included people from diverse sectors in our council. We are very young; the average age of the 28 council members is only 48. Park Jin-young is expected to discuss the potentials of the country s soft power sector as a leader of an entertainment venture. Ahn Chul-soo is in charge of the nation s industrial future. It s a very active group. We also have special advisers from abroad who have experience drawing up visions for the future for their own countries, such as Bill Gates, Guy Sorman and McKinsey & Company s Asia-Pacific Chairman Dominic Barton.

How is your council different from what former President Roh Moo-hyun used to run ? They share the same goal of making Korea a developed nation. [Roh s council was called Vision 2030, aiming to boost national competitiveness to world s top 20 and quality of life to the world s top 30 by 2010.]

We have continuity in the policy to make the country better because we work for the Korean government as the Vision 2030 team did. We also have a goal to achieve a per capita GDP of $40,000 for Korea in 10 years. But it s a very different question of how we are going to get there. Just look at who is running the council. The government was in control of Vision 2030, with the budget ministry and the Korea Development Institute in charge, while our council is run entirely by civilian experts. The former administration put an emphasis on developing a civic society, which could not be done without spending more tax money. The idea for achieving an ideal society for Vision 2030 was to set more restrictions, which again means more public funds. Roh ended up having the biggest administration in Korean history, running a total of 23 presidential councils to mainly support a civic society with a nationalistic perspective. But the Lee administration puts its focus on an economic society with a global perspective. We want to slim things down to be effective.

What is your vision on North Korea?

Another big difference between the strategists from the former administration and us is how we approach the North Korea issue. Roh s vision wanted to help the North because the North is a fraternal country and it is justifiable to give them aid that they did not ask for. We think differently. North Korea is an independent country just like Japan or the United States. Unless it is humanitarian aid, we are not willing to hand out aid without a pragmatic deal that benefits both sides.

Besides, while Roh announced his vision near the end of his administration and did not have much time to realize its plans, we are planning to announce our Future and Vision plan by Liberation Day on Aug. 15 this year. Throughout this [Lee s] term the nation can watch whether we keep our promises or not.

Is your council ideologically conservative?

Taking a pragmatic approach is different from being a conservative. Some criticize this government as too friendly to the United States [in contrast, Roh s administration refused to kowtow to the U.S.] but our standards are the same with all countries. We can say no to the United States as much as we can to North Korea.

You were one of the candidates to become the first prime minister for Lee Myung-bak. Were you disappointed that you didn t get selected?

No. I am glad that I wasn t appointed as the first prime minister of this government. Lee was elected in a landslide, and any candidate would have had to go through a confirmation hearing in the legislature where the opposition was much bigger and ready to pull down anyone. I am an unknown in the political arena. I wasn t sure if I could persuade the opposition and whether I would pass the hearing. I would hate to be a burden for the Lee administration by failing. I was hoping that a politically well-known and better person would become prime minister. I am glad that we have one now.

Lee s approval rating has plummeted. Some are calling him the return of a tyrant. What do you think is the problem?

A drop at the beginning is better than his rating shooting up without end, which is what happened when he took office in February. He tells us that he is learning everyday, that he is a mere servant to the people. He really meant it when he said that. An ordeal will make him wiser and stronger. I do not agree with the comment that he is becoming a tyrant. Not even three months have passed since he took office. He has yet to have the chance to display what he can really do for this country.

By Lee Min-a Staff Reporter [mina@joongang.co.kr]
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