[Viewpoint] Dictators bad and good

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[Viewpoint] Dictators bad and good

Watching the dramatic revolution in Egypt, I feel our country was relatively fortunate. The mass mobilizations and protests in Tahrir Square remind me of the similar banners and rallies for democracy on the streets of Seoul in the summer of 1987. We have since progressed in democratization step by step, experiencing power transfers between the conservative and liberal camps.

What does the future hold for Egypt? The people brought down the 30-year iron rule of President Hosni Mubarak. A military transition government took control, but nobody can definitely say where the country is headed. Few would risk pumping in money into a politically risky country, and without new investment, young people will find it hard to land jobs. The country is still in very choppy waters.

Presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee remain controversial figures because they clung to power and ruled in an authoritarian style. But looking back, we could say we had the right kind of leadership at the right time. Rhee came to rule in a time when the state was in nascent form. It was his role to mold a framework for the state. He built it on the pillars of a free democracy and a market economy. In the process of fighting a war with communist North Korea, he established the basis for our defense with a security pact with the United States.

Park Chung Hee added the bodywork onto that chassis with industrialization and modernization, setting the economy on a path of progress. A fervor for democracy also existed in those days. But if democracy came first, it might have come at the expense of security and prosperity.

No country can accomplish security, economic progress and democracy from its inception. But lucky for us, we realized a stable security situation, economy and democracy in a kind of textbook order. A popular revolt helped to oust a dictator in Egypt, but there is no alternative ruling force. Therefore, power was put in the hands of the military. From the early stage of our republic, opposition parties existed in our land. The opposition served as a crucial alternative force when democracy finally matured. The legacy of opposition, even when it was oppressed, sowed the valuable seeds of democracy in our country.

Now that we have attained viable security, a prosperous economy and democracy, are we finished? All successes include self-destructive elements. The latecomer in our evolution - democracy - could shake the other two pillars of security and economic success. It may prove to be a paradox of our history.

Look at the byproducts of our democracy: reckless squandering of taxes and profligacy with infrastructure facilities like airports and light-rail transit systems. They have all been bred by the compulsions of a democratic system. Democracy selects representatives and leaders through a vote. Ordinary people usually have their eyes on the present, not the future. Politicians must cajole and win voters in order to gain power.

Today, people want a greater piece of the welfare pie, ignoring the fact that their immediate comforts translate into debt for future generations. Security issues are no better. The opposition capitalizes on the public’s fear of a war regardless of the country’s best interests.

The president broke his campaign promise on creating a new science and technology belt in Sejong City. He did so because the campaign promise would jeopardize the country’s future. It requires courage to walk away from a wrong promise, but the act of breaking a promise also undermines the credibility of his leadership. Former ruling party chairwoman Park Geun-hye was right to point that out.

However, her motives for highlighting Lee’s broken promise are still questionable. Why has she suddenly joined the chorus calling for more welfare benefits after keeping silent when the country was in a security crisis? Is she paying too much heed to potential votes rather than the country’s future?

Despite their failings, Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee should be credited for their farsightedness and tenacity in pushing their goals. They might not have accomplished so much for the country if they worked in the polarized democratic system of today. Autocracy got the necessary work done.

They were dictators, but nevertheless clean. They did not steal the people’s wealth as Egypt’s Mubarak and other military strongmen did. China has become the world’s second-largest economy driven by the rigid authoritarianism of Park Chung Hee. Some leaders exercise authoritarianism with wisdom, like Singapore. But at some point, their societies will no longer ignore the innate hunger for democracy.

If democracy turns chaotic and inefficient, nostalgia grows for the efficiencies of autocracy. But once democracy is tasted, there is no going back. Instead, people may habitually rush to the streets to demand more freedom.

We should defend our hard-won democracy. At the same time, we must overcome the divisiveness of the democratic system. We must vote for a leader who can show us the way. Every voter must strive to keep history’s luck in our favor.

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

By Moon Chang-keuk
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