[Viewpoint] Korea needs brave leadership

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[Viewpoint] Korea needs brave leadership

President Lee Myung-bak has been crippled by contradiction. Some condemn his rule as a dictatorship while others criticize him as indecisive. So he has declared a “middle way” to deflect attacks from both sides. And he is no doubt pleased that his approval rating went up after the declaration.

Is the Lee Myung-bak administration now free from attacks from the left and the right? Will the political situation abate?

President Lee’s way of dealing with the public’s feelings regarding the death of former President Roh Moo-hyun was similar to how he handled protests ignited by renewed U.S. beef imports. When the entire nation is convulsed in violent demonstrations, the government keeps a hands-off approach. The nation revolves in chaos for a couple of months, and by the time the crisis simmers down, the president suddenly springs forward with populist policies to appease the public.

Last year, he lowered mobile phone bills for low-income families and virtually gave up privatization of public corporations to please the labor unions. This time around, he is devising policies to please the public, starting with a visit to a snack stand in a market.

I am not saying policies that please the populace are wrong. If they are necessary, they have to be implemented, whether they are the middle way or leftist. The point is that neither the left nor the right can trust the president because he wants to paper over problems with popular policies instead of making decisions at critical moments. After the U.S. beef crisis, he said he would not pursue the Grand Canal project if the citizens were against it. Then, he uncovered the four rivers project and said the Grand Canal project would not be pursued within his term.

Why is he acting like this?

A former chief of staff said in an interview, “The president spent his entire life negotiating and making deals. In business, you might want 100, but if the other side wants 60, you would negotiate and compromise at 80. A businessman is skilled at coexistence and co-prosperity.”

When I heard this, I realized the crux of the problem.

If you calculate gain and loss, you can compromise for somewhere in between. You can settle for not suffering a loss. However, if you want to distinguish right from wrong, you cannot compromise. Right is right, and wrong is wrong. In the field of politics, gain and loss, right and wrong overlap. Having the rich pay more tax or giving the poor more benefits is a matter of gain and loss. In this policy area, you can make a compromise, and that is what we call pragmatism.

However, there are areas where compromise is not an option. Establishing the order of the nation is a matter of right or wrong, not an interest. National defense and protection of individual human rights and liberty are also absolute areas. Those who are accustomed to thinking in terms of gain and loss may get lost when they have to determine right and wrong because they are looking for compromise. They cannot make a decision, Instead, they vacillate.

The responsibility for distinguishing right from wrong is far heavier than calculating profit and loss. When given a task to determine right and wrong, you feel the pressure of failing as a politician - temporarily or permanently. U.S. President Gerald Ford assumed the remainder of President Richard Nixon’s term after Nixon resigned in 1974. In accepting the position, Ford said: “The ultimate test of leadership is not the polls you take, but the risks you take. In the short run, some risks prove overwhelming. Political courage can be self-defeating. But the greatest defeat of all would be to live without courage, for that would hardly be living at all.” The public at the time opposed granting a presidential pardon to Nixon. But in his speech, Ford might have been telling his nation in advance that it was the right choice. Ford was not re-elected. However, Americans now consider his pardon to be correct.

We all have fears, and the president is no exception. When 100,000 citizens are gathered at Gwanghwamun, why wouldn’t he be scared? If he boasts he has no fear, he is just reckless. True courage is to feel fear, yet overcome it. True courage is displayed when you are sincerely faithful to your duty. If a firefighter is only looking at the flames, he would not be able to jump into the burning building. However, when he believes that it is his duty to save a life, he will run into the fire without fear. And we are deeply moved by such courageous acts.

What is the duty of the president? His mission is to defend the Constitution and protect the nation’s sovereignty. If he witnessed the fall of constitutionalism while choosing the middle way after calculating profit and loss, he would be giving up his presidential duties. Such a president can only swing between chaos and populism. We Koreans want a president who can impress us. We hope for a courageous politician who will not compromise principles and justice. How can you have such courage? It comes from the determination to sacrifice yourself to your duty and to do the right thing without being concerned about gain and loss.

When the president shows such sacrifice, citizens will trust their leader.


*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Moon Chang-keuk

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