[Viewpoint] No real substitute for experience

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[Viewpoint] No real substitute for experience

President Lee Myung-bak has changed. He came down from his high horse and visited the National Assembly to persuade opposition Democratic Party executives to ratify the long-awaited free trade agreement with the United States. Before that he wrote and sent letters to all the legislators beseeching their cooperation.

His efforts failed to provide a hopeful outcome from the opposition, but the president nevertheless should be complimented for practicing politics for a change. The fact that the president came up and presented a compromise to the part of the deal the opposition has been protesting the most - the investor-state dispute settlement clause - in person, would seem to pose a burden to the DP, although the party has decided to reject the proposal. It is an entirely different side of the president from his outspoken distaste of the political community and his praise of the legislators who railroaded the media reform law through despite physical resistance from the opposition.

The change may be spurred by the president’s intent to realize a free trade deal with the U.S. as well as his belated awareness of the way politics works. The president often starts conversations with the phrase, “I know from my experience .?.?. ” but he rarely makes such a comment when talking politics. His political experience amounts to no more than a year as a legislator.

He was elected president for his successful career as an entrepreneur and bureaucrat. But after he became the president, he made difficulties for himself due to his political ignorance. He seems to finally be learning politicking after four years in office.

People have become interested in new faces with limited political experience before. Football big fish Chung Mong-joon ascended as a promising candidate during the 2002 presidential election. He had been a third-term legislator, but in the public eye, he was more the figurehead of the Korean Football Association than a politician.

In fact, the public saw his face on TV broadcasting major football matches more than in the National Assembly. When the Korean team appeared in the third-place match in the 2002 World Cup in Seoul, he suddenly emerged as a formidable presidential candidate regardless of his political experience and accomplishments.

Moon Kook-hyun, a well-known entrepreneur and environmental activist, also received the spotlight when he ran against President Lee in the 2007 presidential election due to his fresh image.

The same reason may be behind the staggering popularity of software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo. Even though he hasn’t even mentioned being slightly interested in politics let alone running for president, Ahn is dubbed as a strong candidate in next year’s presidential election, leading most of the polls.

The mere hint of Ahn running in the Seoul mayoral by-election last month pushed conservative front-runner Park Geun-hye from her long-held top place in opinion polls of potential presidential candidates. Whether he intends it or not, it won’t be easy for Ahn to brush aside the temptation to run for presidential office, given his current stardom.

Ahn completely won over some voters, especially among the younger generation, after he declared he will donate part of his stake in his company to help the needy. Ahn has a rich qualification to become a political leader. He boasts prolific career experience as a doctor, entrepreneur and professor. He also has proven a high standard of public integrity and modesty, making him a stark contrast to self-interested politicians who move in their inner circles based on alumni and regional networks.

But politics is also a special field requiring expertise. We have seen from President Lee that political inexperience can be a huge handicap in exercising leadership.

Of course, some people do not need experience in order to be wise. Ahn has been too shrewd in his timing and actions - contact with students through an on-campus talk show tour, commentaries on contentious issues such as inequality, modest yet highly publicized media exposure, announcement of donations at the stunningly right time and a book planned to be released next year - to claim naivety in politics.

But politics do not always play out as planned or by individual effort alone. Opponents will always be ready to attack and one needs to work with them as partners whether one likes it or not. Aptitude is more important than senses in politics.

We cannot guess what will happen on the political stage months from now, but the likelihood of a political debut from Ahn looks strong. He will have to brace for a hard test and audition on his political capabilities and potential. We cannot have another president who learns politicking while in office.

*The writer is a professor of politics and foreign affairs at Seoul National University.

by Kang Won-taek
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