[Viewpoint]A knotty problemIn mythical times, Gordias was anointed king of Phrygia when he entered the leaderless city driving an ox-cart, as prophesied by an oracle. Celebrating his accession to the throne, the mythical Greek king tied the ox-cart to a column of the temple and left his own prophecy that whoever untied the knot would become king of Asia. While countless challengers attempted to do so, no one succeeded. When Alexander the Great visited Phrygia he gave it a try. Failing to untie the knot, he pulled out his sword and sliced it in two.
The national chaos ignited by the negotiation on U.S. beef imports gets more tangled day by day, just like a Gordian knot. For the first time in the history of Korea’s constitutional government, the entire cabinet offered to resign. We are only 107 days into the new administration. All Blue House secretaries also resigned, taking responsibility for the crisis. Several hundred thousand citizens participated in the nationwide candlelight vigils marking the 21st anniversary of the June 1987 democratization movement and called for the removal of the Lee Myung-bak administration. The police used shipping containers to block Sejongno in central Seoul. What’s more serious is that we don’t know when this crisis will end. While the administration prepares to reshuffle the cabinet and Blue House staff, there is no guarantee that a shake-up will resolve the crisis. A truckers’ strike is expected to paralyze freight transport, but the government has no clear strategy. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is ready to go on a full-scale walkout. Even if the former Grand National Party chairwoman, Park Geun-hye, becomes prime minister, it is unlikely that her appointment will settle the crisis.
The president has to make a decision. President Lee Myung-bak should come forward and slice off the knot that represents the issue of renegotiating the U.S. beef deal, which is the heart of the crisis. The protesters are demanding that the government overturn the agreement made last April with the United States and renegotiate.
As the government hoped to avoid renegotiation by any means, we have ended up in this situation. The president pledged that beef from cattle older than 30 months will not be imported, telephoning U.S. President George W. Bush and sending a delegation from the ruling party, the government and the Blue House for additional discussions. Lee hopes to achieve the effect of renegotiation through supplementary measures by offering government guarantees on regulations with the private sector.
However, the protesters are not modifying their stance. According to an opinion poll, 80 percent of the citizens want renegotiation. Without addressing this issue, there is no way to end the rallies. Lee cannot resolve the crisis with an expedient, stop-gap measure.
Just as Alexander the Great sliced off the Gordian knot, Lee has to confront the issue directly, putting his own political career on the line.
First of all, the president has to initiate talks with the citizens, through a television debate, a news conference or any means possible. He should explain in detail why he thinks there should be no renegotiation; what kind of damage renegotiation would entail for the national interest; the estimated loss to our exports with the United States; the consequences for the free trade agreement with the U.S.; and the impact on Korea’s reputation. He should also explain what would happen if the United States refuses to renegotiate.
If such a discussion fails to end the rallies, a national referendum should be held. Article 72 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea states, “The President may submit important policies relating to diplomacy, national defense, unification and other matters relating to the national destiny to a national referendum if he/she deems it necessary.”
The crisis over U.S. beef imports is a diplomatic issue tied up with the welfare of the nation. Depending on how you interpret the Constitution, the president can bring the matter to a referendum. Holding a national referendum over beef would make international headlines, but we can’t afford to worry about how others will view us.
In 1968, student demonstrations and nationwide strikes in France cornered President Charles de Gaulle’s government. In April 1969, he held a referendum on government decentralization and Senate reform. When French citizens turned down the proposals, De Gaulle resigned and retired.
President Lee Myung-bak’s political fate is at a crossroads. He’s the only person who can cut the Gordian knot.
The only way to resolve the crisis is for him to take a risk and put his political career on the line.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok