[Outlook]Koreans’ great expectations

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[Outlook]Koreans’ great expectations

I have pondered deeply why a former South Korean President once said that the job was too difficult to perform. What made the presidency so difficult? Are there institutional and structural defects?


The problem is the Korean people have higher expectations of their leader than citizens of any other country. Therefore, it might be impossible for a Korean president to be successful and be held in high regard by future generations.

From an institutional perspective, we may be so blindly sticking to an idea ?? the “irresponsible presidential system” ?? that we are imposing too heavy a burden on one person. We don’t consider how to help the president execute his responsibilities. Perhaps, the public will only be happy with a president with the power and wisdom of King Sejong the Great.

Good luck. How could even King Sejong govern today’s Korea? It took him 32 years to accomplish what he did. Could he satisfy the people’s expectations within the confinement of a five-year term presidency? Hardly.

The fact is that the public expects far more from a president than is humanly possible. How could anyone be successful? It naturally follows that the public will be consistently disappointed. It’s merely a matter of time. Until now, Korean leaders have been evaluated not on a single standard, but on a double standard. The first is a general criterion commonly applied to all world leaders, while the second applies specifically to Korean presidents.

The problem is that the specific standard for Korean presidents is far higher than the general standard applied to foreign leaders. In addition, we face a situation where we as a people will be exceptionally disappointed in any president we vote for because it is inherently impossible for anyone to meet our standards.

For example, a foreign leader who has succeeded in realizing one of two goals ?? democratization or industrialization ? appears to receive fairly high scores from the Korean people. We highly evaluate the former Philippine President Corazon Aquino for the realization of democracy and do not worry about her limited economic achievements. And Koreans also esteem Lee Kuan Yew in promoting Singapore as a well developed economy and an orderly community in Asia. Yet, we tend to ignore his limitations in the democratization of his society.

In short, Koreans display a high regard toward foreign leaders who win battles to industrialize or democratize. One is enough. But when it comes to Korean presidents, one is never enough. That’s a double standard.

By forcing Korean presidents to perform two tricks at once, we have set a high bar over which no president can leap. That’s unfair to not only presidents, but to Koreans, as well. Further, it’s not just democracy versus industrialism that a Korean president faces. Koreans insist that he performs even more tricks.

There is a dual Korean attitude concerning wealth distribution and growth, as if it is easy to simultaneously do both. But Koreans expect it and won’t be satisfied until it’s accomplished. What they are really doing is setting themselves up of more disappointments.

Does the plight of the world’s economy play a role in this demand for near-perfection? In a word, no.

It doesn’t matter how difficult the global environment may be, a Korean president has no choice but to spare no effort to satisfy the people’s demands to win public support and recognition.

We have succeeded in obtaining tangible results in democratization and industrialization - after many complications - over the past 60 years since the founding of the Republic of Korea.

However, we are well aware that we are still suffering from extreme pains and insecurity as we approach the threshold of an advanced country. Amid this chaos, it would be very fortunate indeed if the National Assembly considers changing some of the Procrustean rules for running the nation.

However, more urgently, the public should gather collective wisdom to take control of excessively high expectations for a president. It is my sincere hope that the public will have a more forgiving attitude toward the president’s endeavors in pursuing numerous goals for the nation’s security and prosperity in various fields that can not be easily fused together.

I still look forward to a more mature attitude of trying to embrace results with patience, rather than with haste. Additionally, I expect the president and political leaders to renew their understanding of how high the Korean public’s vision and expectations are. I also hope that they will firmly resolve to meet the people’s expectations. The president should be well aware that his post is for extraordinary people.

*The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Hong-koo
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