[Viewpoint] The lamest duck

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[Viewpoint] The lamest duck

The people’s despair has reached a peak after continuing revelations of public servants’ corruption, and President Lee Myung-bak made an incredible remark on the subject.

“It has been a long tradition that companies have paid for the public servants’ workshops,” he said. “When I was working for a private company, I once did so. It’s not just the practice of the land ministry, but all ministries. The elder statesmen have all worried that the entire country is rotten. The people are also very concerned that the country is marred with corruption.”

At first blush, it can seem refreshing that the president admits to such problems and deplores them. But wait a minute. If Lee has known about public servants’ wrongdoings since before he took office in February 2008, what has he done about it for the past four years? Why is he passing the buck by blithely treating the issue as if it was none of his business? Who are the officials using their extraordinary talents and positions to satisfy their own selfish interests? Aren’t they all working for ministers and heads of government offices appointed by Lee? Aren’t they all from Lee’s political camp? Does Lee really deplore these practices, or does he simply think they have nothing to do with a president’s responsibilities?

According to the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index announced by Transparency International, South Korea was ranked 39th from the top, with Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore being the cleanest countries, and received 8.7 out of 10 points. Is that the reality of the country that has hosted the Group of 20 summit and will host a nuclear summit next spring, which will drastically improve its national prestige? Calling corruption and slack disciplines of public servants a natural outcome of the Lee administration’s lame duck status is nothing less than an acquittal of the president. As Lee accurately declared, public servants were corrupt even before his term began - and he has known it all along.

Right now, the country has fallen into the doldrums that come when its pivotal power loses strength. Lee won 5.3 million votes in the 2007 presidential election, but he failed to use that overwhelming support to improve the people’s lives and unite the country. As a result, the working-class is suffering from economic hardships and our social divisions have grown wider.

The Lee administration failed to stop the country from fragmenting over the debates on Sejong City, the four rivers restoration projects, the new airport in the south, the science belt, tuition cuts and free school lunches. The latest confrontation between police and the prosecution and the growing rebelliousness of senior prosecutors also shows that the absence of presidential leadership has created a serious crisis.

The Grand National Party is also in a profound identity crisis. After the April 27 by-election defeats, the ruling party took a path that contradicted its own president, focusing on populist pledges that may help it win back some voters. Instead of having a reasonable, realistic and long-term policy to compete against the Democratic Party, the GNP leadership is only worried about keeping key party posts and getting re-elected to the National Assembly. A Constitutional Court justice nominee recently testified at a confirmation hearing that he doesn’t know whether the North sunk the warship Cheonan because he didn’t see the attack with his own eyes. The GNP leadership didn’t even bother to challenge or condemn such an outrageous remark.

The ruling and opposition parties are both ignoring the liberalism that makes a liberal democracy. Under the slogan of building a fair society, lawmakers are bashing conglomerates and desperately haggling over votes with half-price tuition pledges and free school lunches. The president appears powerless to combat such ugly opportunism.

The president met with the main opposition leader recently for the first time in three years. How could he possibly seek the understanding and cooperation of the opposition on major policies? What are the values that Lee and the GNP are promoting? President Lee and his political allies are actually blocking South Korea’s goal of becoming an advanced country with $30,000 of national income per capita. They appeared to be numb to China’s rise, Japan’s slow motion implosion, shrinking U.S. might and our internal crisis with North Korea. There is no one in the government or the political arena who is taking seriously South Korea’s national strategy with a far-sighted perspective to prepare for the next 10, 20 or 50 years.

Edmund Burke, considered the father of conservatism, defined a political party as “a body of men united for promoting, by their joint endeavors, the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” Burke was a member of the British House of Commons, but left politics over the frustration of not being able to serve the national interests over the interests of his party and his district.

Global affairs and the situation of the Korean Peninsula changes quickly, and they don’t wait for us to catch up. The environment and an aging society are new challenges. Do the politicians care? Instead of employing tricks, South Korean politicians need to have a revolutionary shift: by seriously thinking about what choices they will make when the national interest clashes with the interests of their parties and regions and when their personal political interests contradict the commonweal.

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

By Kim Young-hie
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