[Viewpoint] Lee must move beyond inner circle

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[Viewpoint] Lee must move beyond inner circle

The appointment of Lee Charm, a German-born, naturalized Korean citizen, as the president of the Korea Tourism Organization has become a hot issue. Although some have criticized the appointment as a publicity stunt, most have welcomed the selection. It is symbolic that a foreign-born citizen has been appointed to such a high-ranking post. Most seem to expect he will be able to implement tourism policy from the perspective of a consumer. Some have even praised the appointment as the best personnel affairs decision President Lee Myung-bak has made.

Lee Charm said he first came to Korea 31 years ago with a plan to stay for only six months. But he said he was so mesmerized by Korea that he decided to move here. Lee’s love for Korea is deep.

“I loved the history, the culture, the nature and the people of Korea. I thought it would be great for the people around the world to understand Korea as well as I do,” Lee has said. “We do not know the value of tourism products. Korea has many charming cultural attributes, but has failed to present them well.”

Lee appears to be an appropriate candidate who will be capable of selecting the best of Korean culture to attract foreign tourists.

Some are skeptical about whether Lee, who has no bureaucratic experience, will be able to manage the organization, especially given the peculiar organizational culture of Korea’s state-run companies. There may be some cause for concern, but what’s more important is the experiment of having a naturalized citizen serve in a high-profile public servant position.

There is, however, one thing that is bothersome. Lee happens to be a member of President Lee’s Somang Presbyterian Church. If the president had searched for the best candidate from around the nation and the appropriate person just happened to be one of his fellow churchgoers, then there would be no reason to criticize the decision. However, Lee Charm is known to have maintained a close relationship with the president for a long time, and that appears to be the impetus for the president’s choice. That’s why the freshness of this appointment has been somewhat tainted.

Although the appointment of Lee Charm is still valid in many ways, the president’s appointments of key officials in the past have triggered the criticism that he only favors people who are close to him. Some officials appeared to be chosen not because they were qualified and capable but because they were part of the president’s inner circle, and so the public began to turn against the president.

Before winning the presidential election, the scope of Lee’s activities was wide, and he must have contacted countless figures in various sectors. He may have a roster of inner-circle regulars who have vowed their loyalty to him or who owe him favors. And yet, his pool of talent based on his personal ties must have a limit. The people around the president may have blinded him and covered up the shining gems that exist outside that community. It was disappointing to learn how the president selected the new prosecutor general, for example. From the start, inner-circle regulars, including Korea University alumni and people from the Gyeongsang region, were eliminated. People from the Jeolla region were also removed in the end, but the reason for that was deplorable. “It was burdensome to appoint a Jeolla-based figure to head the highest law enforcement authority,” a Blue House official reportedly said.

The pool of capable candidates is limited, and the president eliminated some of them based on reasons that were less than convincing. It is no wonder that his administration is filled with his confidants or insipid figures.

Nanami Shiono, the author of “Res Gestae Populi Romani,” said the driving force behind the Roman Empire’s 1,000 years of success was “clementia.” Clementia is more than a concept of tolerance; it was about engaging the enemy and enlisting them as allies.

A slave or an enemy solider could have become a citizen of Rome if they wished. There was no distinction between enemies and allies. As long as they did not betray Rome, everyone could be a citizen of the empire and they could even have joined the senate.

After Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and captured Rome, he pardoned all the soldiers who backed his political foe, Pompeius, and even appointed some of them to key positions. That is a classic example of clementia policy. We envy the Roman-style politics of harmony and Caesar’s thinking. It would be great if the Korean president could bring about such remarkable personnel and political decisions.

A cabinet reshuffle is expected in August, when we hope that the president will remove all the barriers and make his selections from a wide pool of candidates. We also hope that the public can accept his choices.

If the reshuffle is based on the politics of clementia, engagement, solidarity, communication and harmony, it will be positive. The Lee administration must be freed from favoring Korea University alumni, Somang churchgoers, residents of southern Seoul and the rich. Connected with this, it must regain the people’s trust, and the answer to that lies in Lee’s choices of personnel.

At a lecture a decade ago, Lee Charm once compared the Korean people to crabs in a jar. A freshwater crab has tiny hairs and sharp claws, and it is capable of climbing and escaping from a deep jar on its own. And yet, when multiple crabs are put into the same jar, none can escape. When one crab tries to climb up, the other crabs hold on to it. They fall into chaos and none can get out. Lee Charm said Koreans often catch other in snares, just as crabs do, and that is the main thing hindering Korean society’s development.

Expectations are high that he will correct the negative spirit of Koreans at the Korea Tourism Organization and succeed. Clearing up concerns that his appointment was done for show would be the best way for him to repay the president.


*The writer is a chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Heo Nam-chin
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