[Viewpoint] The captain’s last mile

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[Viewpoint] The captain’s last mile

Via Dolorosa is an 800-meter (2,600-foot) winding route from the Antonia Fortress to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre within the Old City of Jerusalem. The road, the “Way of Grief” or “Way of Suffering,” is the path on which Jesus carried his cross on the way to his crucifixion at Golgotha, where Pontius Pilate sentenced him to be hanged on the cross. Roman soldiers tore Jesus’ robe, crowned his head with thorns and mocked him. The crowd in the street spat on him and humiliated him.

Korean presidents all travel their own Via Dolorosa before retiring. Mockery and humiliation amid poor approval ratings is the cross they carry at the end of their five-year terms.

President Lee Myung-bak is no exception. He has become the target of black comedy and ridicule by the opposition, bloggers and podcast hosts. The city of Seoul is busy wiping out MB’s signature from the Cheonggye Stream, Lee’s major accomplishment as Seoul’s mayor. His ambitious four-river restoration project is also under scrutiny. Lee is being denied and betrayed by his political disciples. In applying for nominations for the upcoming general election, lawmakers from Lee’s faction highlighted their relationship with the ruling party’s current de facto leader, Park Geun-hye, while mentioning nothing about the president.

As Pilate was under public pressure, prosecutors are ready to order a crucifixion. They reluctantly, yet inevitably, targeted Lee’s brother and son for their own self-protection under the pretext of going forward with reform-minded prosecutions. Previous presidents Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun have all gone through the grievous ritual.

Lee’s vow to do his best to the end is hardly remembered. The Blue House has lost its halo. Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-jin and Financial Supervisory Commission Chairman Kim Seok-dong are a few in the cabinet that still get their names on the news. That’s because they are last-minute and end-of-the-term appointments with no personal relation to Lee.

All presidents have tried to avoid the path of the Via Dolorosa. None escaped disgraceful ends.

But it is not too late for Lee to end the tragic curse and legacy of Korean presidents. To do so, he must change his attitude.

Instead of going on overseas visits, the president should spend his remaining days in office touring his own country. His predecessors also spent most of their final years overseas to escape the political noise at home. It was diplomacy in name, but to the public, it came across as escape. Lee is advised to tour troubled regions like the farm areas devastated by foot-and-mouth disease and Yeonpyeong Island, which suffered North Korean shelling last year. He could also visit Gangjeong, Jeju Island, and southern regions where the government is immensely unpopular for the construction of a naval base and the cancellation of a major airport project.

Chinese leaders have upheld the tradition of touring provinces in order to comfort and encourage residents far from the capital. Lee should avoid extravagant tours and entourages of cabinet members and instead take the minimum number of security and aides to show his humility.

Secondly, we like to see more modesty from the president. President Lee stood in front of TV cameras to personally deliver the news that Korean commandoes had saved a Korean freighter hijacked by Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea, declaring “a perfect operation.” When America’s biggest enemy, Osama bin Laden, was found and killed in Pakistan, U.S. President Barack Obama watched the scene along with his security team via satellite. In the center was the commander in chief. The intense look of the chief executive watching the video somehow underscored American power and strength. The first call Obama made after the killing of bin Laden was to his predecessor, George W. Bush. It was a symbolic gesture of sharing the success of the campaign with the former president, who initiated the war against terrorism.

In contrast, Lee, at a recent press conference, blatantly criticized the opposition party leadership for flip-flopping on past policies and comments. Which approach action wins more public sympathy and approval?

This year could be a turning point for the country in many areas, and it demands strong leadership. The global economic crisis can erupt and spill over to our shores. The Maginot Line must be drawn against the a cascade of welfare promises by politicians across the spectrum. The president must walk his last mile against such challenging currents.

When a ship is on the brink of sinking, the captain must, without hesitation, throw off freight. Everything must go, including valuables, to save as many lives as possible. The president must follow this wise course in the current period of emergency. He must discard the burdensome, empty his heart and become humble. All he hears now may be mockery and ridicule. But the world has always been cruel.

There are those who remember the president as a wise captain who steered the country in the stormy sea of the global financial crisis and enabled the economy to expand at a pace above the global average. We hope to see him walking down the path toward retirement in dignity.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho
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