[Viewpoint]Move the people

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[Viewpoint]Move the people

The fate of the government and the future of the country depend on what happens over the next few days. If Lee Myung-bak fails to be reborn as president, the next four years and nine months in Korea promise to be long and miserable.

It does not matter whether the president ends up as a failure in the eyes of history. What matters most is the fate of the nation. What happened to the pledges about people’s livelihoods and the plan to upgrade Korea to an advanced country?

We must save the president, not because we like him, but because we have to save the country. For his part, Lee must find a way to save his presidency.

The president must move the people. Politics is about wiping away the tears of the population, but perhaps it should also be about making tears of happiness flow.

In 2006, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited a vegetable market wearing a green jacket. It was the same jacket he wore when he visited a similar market eleven years previously. As the soles of his shoes had become worn out while on an inspection tour in Henan Province, Prime Minister Wen asked a local shoemaker to repair his shoes. The shoemaker was surprised to see that the soles were the same ones that he had fixed two years ago.

Now, the Chinese people are proud to have such a self-sacrificing prime minister standing by the suffering people at the site of the earthquake in Sichuan Province.

The late Korean President Park Chung-Hee was a harsh dictator bent on national development. Today, however, around 70 percent of Koreans choose him as the president they most respect. The older generation remembers watching former President Park roll up his trousers to plant rice with farmers. Park’s face got tanned as he worked out in the sun. He drank makgeolli, Korean rice wine, with village elders after finishing working in the fields. The people knew in their hearts whether or not it was just for show. Politics was politics, and rice planting was rice planting.

Instead of turning on the air-conditioner, Park would open up the windows of his office in summer, hitting at the bugs with a fly swatter. A famous Japanese journalist commented on the president’s worn-out shoes, and Park’s barber remembers his old worn-out leather belt.

Around 100 days after his inauguration, the approval rating of former President Kim Young-sam was 95.7 percent. The unexpectedly high rate was due to the “handmade noodle reform.” From the his handling of political funds, President Kim Young-sam became a synonym for corruption. He accepted astronomical amounts of money from wealthy Korean entrepreneurs during the 1992 presidential election. He did not accumulate any personal wealth, but the way he raised political funds was as corrupt as any other type of fraud.

However, as soon as he was inaugurated as president, Kim Young-sam made a dramatic about-face and proclaimed that he would terminate the old practices.

His insistence on serving handmade noodles at the Blue House was a kind of personal trademark. In the beginning of his presidency, Kim insisted on only serving noodles made of Korean wheat. At first, it was not easy to do so as Korean wheat is low in protein and not suited for noodle making, and employees and guests of the Blue House had to eat loose noodles with their spoons. People went hungry, but the reform was a success.

Kim made the assets of civil servants public and arrested corrupt officials. Civil servants became noisy with cries of dissatisfaction and protest, but the people supported the reforms.

President Lee Myung-bak has failed to touch the hearts of the people with his policies. An already wealthy person ? with a personal fortune of over 30 billion won ($29 million) ? the president pledged to give up his salary, insisted on a primitive “no holiday” schedule aimed at making Korea an advanced country, appointed professors not recognized as scholars by the academic community to important positions, and chose people with certain university and church connections to sit in high public posts. None of these moves are at all touching.

Admittedly, it is not easy to move the hearts of people in this day and age. Planting rice, wearing old worn-out shoes and serving handmade noodles would not have quite the same effect in 2008 as it used to. So how can President Lee Myung-bak touch the hearts of the people?

Lee is said to have confided to a close aide when he was a presidential candidate, just before a presidential debate, “I am not as handsome as Chung Dong-young, I do not have a good voice, and I am not a good speaker. What shall I do?” The aide told him, “Speak from your heart.”

The president needs to stand up in front of the people. He needs to loosen his tie, roll up his sleeves, and speak from his heart. The president must explain why the government believes U.S. beef is safe, what are the things people misunderstand, what mistakes the government made during negotiations, what corrections have been made since then, and how the imports of beef over 30 months old will be checked. He must proclaim that even if such beef somehow makes its way into the Korean market, the Blue House will eat it first.

The president should apologize for his rash English-immersion education plan; the selection of unqualified people as his aides, whom he thought would work hard, without knowing people’s feelings against them; and for failing to keep his promises to Park Geun-hye.

If he does not understand the beef issue completely, he must stay up all night and study up on it. Even if it takes blood, sweat and tears, the president must provide answers to the people’s questions.

The hearts of the people can be moved, even just a little, if the president genuinely shows a will to change.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin
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