[Viewpoint] Lee needs to show backbone

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[Viewpoint] Lee needs to show backbone

In a Liberation Day address a year ago, President Lee Myung-bak proposed a new peace initiative, suggesting that he would start an international program to help North Korea if the state gave up its nuclear ambitions. What happened to his ambition?

North Korea has since fired a torpedo at one of our patrol ships - killing 46 sailors - and threatened our country with provocative measures.

In this year’s Liberation Day address, the president trotted out a three-stage unification plan by first establishing peaceful relations, followed by economic cooperation and financially unification.

I wonder what will happen to this idea a year from now. North Korea, due to its fragility, now poses the greatest danger to South Korea since the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945. The probability of an abrupt change in the communist state could result in upheaval for South Koreans in the coming years.

In that sense, President Lee should focus on managing risks rather than preparing for eventual unification. When dealing with a high-risk state in a transitional period, a South Korean president needs to display rock-solid ideological conviction and consistency. Any demonstration of ambiguity or shakiness can unsettle the public. The president must ask himself if he can prove to be a reliable figure.

There are two types of ideologies. The first one is a vision based on the history and identity of a country. For South Koreans, this would be upholding the principles on which the country was founded, including democracy and its long-standing position on North Korea.

The second ideology refers to ways to manage society, including views on issues like taxation, welfare, labor relations and policies relating to education and treatment of minorities.

We live next to the earth’s last hard-line Communists. So every South Korean should be armed with ideological vigilance against their Communist neighbors. It is as necessary for our survival as the Israelis place importance on their defense security. This means having leadership that sticks to the first ideology, while being flexible on the second.

President Lee displayed his hallmark emphasis on pursuing practicality regarding North Korea policy in latest address. If he applies moderation and practicality to domestic social affairs, there would be no room for argument. As a matter of fact, he would not be the first among conservative governments. British Prime Minister David Cameron professes “compassionate conservatism” by departing from traditional conservatism with a liberal approach on social issues.

But the problem is that President Lee does not draw a clear line between the two ideologies as he failed to convince the people that he would be firm on the first ideology and flexible on the second.

At the beginning of his term, there were no questions about where the conservative president stood in terms of his ideological views on national identity, especially in relation to North Korea. He was elected with the broad support of conservatives and moderates. In the beginning of his term, he dealt with matters regarding North Korea, pro-North Koreans, and ideological conflicts with the discipline of a conservative.

Then he started to waver in response to the public protests about American beef imports in the summer of 2008. He suddenly began to backtrack in the face of the great body of anti-government forces. In the spring of the following year, he came up with a moderate and practical platform.

An ideological conversion on domestic policy is understandable. But then he proved he could relent on national-level ideology. For instance, he invited a pro-North Korea novelist Hwang Sok-yong, who had been imprisoned once for illegally visiting North Korea, to accompany him on a trip to Central Asia. The novelist had once been carried on the shoulders of a North Korean general during his visit to Pyongyang and compared Kim Il-sung to Admiral Yi Sun-shin and King Sejong.

The president’s erratic behavior sends the wrong signal to North Korea and the pro-North Korean community here. They may have sensed weakness in the president’s ideological beliefs after testing him with the bait of an inter-Korean summit and later with the Cheonan attack. Pro-North Korean activists are fooling the Lee administration and publicly humiliating the government-led multinational findings on the Cheonan sinking.

President Lee’s engagement of Hwang Sok-yong also backfired when North Korea attacked the Cheonan and when the brazen leftist pastor Han Sang-ryeol went to North Korea without authorization. The realities of conflict in this country are cruel. It has no room for the luxury of ideological experiments from a South Korean president. We need a president who can rule with resolution in this unsettling time.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin
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