[Viewpoint] A fight against populismJust as the true nature of a person is revealed during a time of crisis, a good test of a nation’s leadership comes during an outbreak of populism. When the gale of populism blows on the forest of leaders, some trees bend readily and eventually snap, while others resist and remain upright and strong.
The typhoon of populism began forming in Korea in the early 2000s. Before the presidential election of December 2002, anti-American sentiment swept the country. Two middle school girls, Hyo-sun and Mi-sun, were killed by a U.S. military vehicle. Although it was a devastating tragedy, it was also a genuine accident. Of course, the American military authorities handled the case clumsily. Nevertheless, the incident shouldn’t have been enough to bring tens of thousands of citizens to candlelight protests at which bitter antagonism was vented against our ally.
I was serving as a correspondent in Washington at the time. As the protests grew, former U.S. Ambassador to Korea James Lilley called me. He said the tragic nature of the case made people very emotional, but it was important to maintain a cool head. He emphasized that the incident should not affect the important objectives of the security relationship between the United States and Korea. Americans called for composure, but populism was already building among politicians in Seoul.
Even conservative presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang became a captive of the phenomenon. Eleven days before the election, he visited the families of Hyo-sun and Mi-sun. He held their hands and said, “An unimaginable incident has happened, and the entire nation is furious as the incident has been handled unreasonably.”
The presidential candidate called the road accident an “unimaginable incident.” The U.S. president, the secretary of defense and the commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea made apologies and offered compensation to the victims, but our politician encouraged the fury of the “entire nation.” The day before the visit, Lee attended a mass for the girls in Gwanghwamun. He joined the protests, the so-called “streets of anti-Americanism.”
Lee Hoi-chang lost the election by 570,000 votes. He tried to employ populist emotions at the last minute in the race, and it didn’t work. What would have happened if Lee stood by the Korea-U.S. alliance instead?
He could have said, “The deaths of Hyo-sun and Mi-sun are truly regrettable. If I am elected president, I will work to revise the Status of Forces Agreement with the USFK. However, we Koreans need to understand that this was a traffic accident. The Korea-U.S. alliance should not be shaken by an unfortunate accident. The United States has made an apology and given compensation, so we need to keep our composure.”
Since Hyo-sun and Mi-sun’s deaths, the face of populism has reappeared with increasing frequency. In the summer of 2008, a tsunami of superstition about mad cow disease swept through the streets of Seoul. At one point, the president actually went up the mountain behind the Blue House to reflect on the dire situation.
Nowadays, populists are competing to offer free and half-price sundries, like discount chain stores or fishmongers. Tuitions are supposed to be magically cut in half. Originally, the Democratic Party promoted a policy to offer lower tuitions for students in financial need. However, after the party’s chairman, Sohn Hak-kyu, attended a candlelight vigil, he changed his party’s stance to include all students.
Since government funding is necessarily limited, welfare should be selectively given to those in need. But the progressive and leftist politicians want to offer any benefits to all citizens. They want to offer free school lunches to children from well-to-do families. It is a typical gesture of populism driven by one motive: winning votes.
In response, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon chose to hold a referendum on the issue of free school lunches. The referendum will be the first case of a popular vote on an issue of social value. The public will be asked whether they support welfare benefits for all, regardless of their financial situations, or whether they are concerned the nation could go bankrupt with such an approach.
Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives” tells us that if you go against the people, you will be ruined by the people. But if you follow the people, you will go down with the people. The best way is to lead the people.
A leader must not be ruined with the people, even if it means he could be ruined by them. Oh Se-hoon did not yield to unreasonable demands of the Democratic Party and chose to ask the people to show the way. It is a just fight against populism. Even if the public makes a wrong choice, he could go down temporarily, only to live long. If the public supports his logic, the mayor will lead the people to prosperity.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin