[Viewpoint] Midterm blues signal time for change

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[Viewpoint] Midterm blues signal time for change

In Korean politics, the midpoint of a president’s tenure in office is typically when the public begins to sour on its leader.

Every president elected since the country adopted democracy started their terms with high approval ratings, only to see them tumble at the halfway point.

President Lee Myung-bak aimed to refocus his political vision via a reshuffle of his cabinet, which will steer the administration during the second half of his term. But just like other presidents, it appears Lee is tangled up in midterm turmoil.

Many observers overseas have openly wondered if the true nature of Korean politics has really changed under a democratic system over the past six decades, as it often seems that the president holds all the power and operates a one-man show. As these pundits have pointed out, the most pressing challenge for Korean politics is to shed its “theatrical” nature, in which the president alone is the writer, director and main actor.

In theatrical politics, the people are not participants. Rather, they are simply the audience, a group that claps or boos while viewing the performance of the president, but has no control over what’s happening on the stage. In this scenario, communication between the government and the people is, naturally, nearly impossible. Korea’s past presidents believed that surprise events such as cabinet shakeups were enough to overcome a crisis. They were indeed effective stop-gap measures, but ultimately, past presidents were unable to create a stable support system.

President Lee’s latest reshuffle, unfortunately, is no exception, as he failed to present measures that will allow him to escape from theatrical politics. In the Roh Moo-hyun administration, politicians did not challenge the legitimacy of their rivals. The main battles involved arguing over which idea or plan was better. Today, however, it’s not about fighting over right and wrong. Instead, it involves determining who will be saved and who will be killed in a political sense.

In battle, generals try to respect global rules governing prisoners of war (POW). It’s not necessarily because they are humane. It’s because they do not want to deal with global retaliation when POWs are killed.

This concept applies to the political sphere. And that’s exactly why Lee needs a new political vision that will stop this vicious cycle of retaliation. Some of the changes unveiled in the latest shakeup make me wonder if Lee has the slightest willingness to end the constant cycle of retaliation. The most serious problem is that Lee failed to show an awareness for the need to appease the public. The four river restoration project and the Sejong City issue have turned more people in regions such as Chungcheong and Gangwon against the president.

Abraham Lincoln is praised as a great U.S. politician not because of his move to free black slaves, but because he kept the Union from falling apart by navigating the country through an internal crisis. He focused heavily on securing support from states that were located along the border between the North and the South. To this end, he was able to save the Union and at the same time abolish slavery.

The lesson we can take from Lincoln is the importance of winning support from provinces and cities when implementing policies that will impact them. President Lee, however, kept his land minister in the recent reshuffle, indicating that he doesn’t grasp this concept whatsoever.

He also failed to present a vision to thaw the frozen state of relations between North Korea and South Korea. Lee managed to win the Group of 20 summit, highlighting Korea’s growing importance in the international community.

But his administration is treating domestic issues and inter-Korean ties as secondary matters.

It is common for presidents here to focus on diplomacy when domestic initiatives falter and relations with North Korea deteriorate. But Lee must remember that relationships with other countries will not necessarily help in resolving the North Korea issue and strengthen ties between the countries. Lee must pay attention to this reality and try to develop a new strategy, perhaps one modeled after the two-track strategic policy of Helmut Schmidt, former chancellor of Germany.

Lee can perhaps pressure the North by bolstering its alliance with the United States yet also strive to create a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations through other means. Lee, however, has kept his team of unification, foreign and defense ministers as well as presidential aides on national security issues intact. That’s created concerns that the fissures in relations between the countries will grow deeper and wider.

I can now understand how Cassandra - an ancient princess in Troy - felt. She warned countless times of a looming war, but no one believed her. Still, I have a touch of hope that Lee will make changes when he presents his new vision on Liberation Day tomorrow.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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