[Viewpoint] A silent communication masterSoftware mogul-turned-professor Ahn Cheol-soo is enigmatic. Ambiguity is his way of politicking. It is his abstruse yet powerful appeal that could turn the odds in the upcoming presidential race. He has long cultivated the art of equivocation. He practiced it first when he gracefully bowed out of the Seoul mayoral by-election to instead back the relatively unknown dissident lawyer Park Won-soon, who went to beat the ruling party candidate. Ahn is expected to publicly declare his bid for the December presidential race later this month. His campaign strategy is unclear. The dragged-out tactic of uncertainty only builds the enigmatic force surrounding him. Questions and doubts about his political capabilities have amplified.
Strangely, his main talent is said to be communication. Even his potential presidential rival, Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party, gives him a thumbs up in that arena. “He seems to connect and strike home with the youth,” she said of Ahn. Both praise and criticism arise from his deliberately obscure ways.
Mobile phones have become the basic instrument for communication. The well-connected, as we can now call them, are constantly wired through the Facebook, Twitter and other social network platforms. But Ahn, dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology at Seoul National University, stubbornly refuses modern communication technology. He calls mobile phones nuisances. “My life would be a mess if I owned a mobile phone. I get calls every five minutes until midnight. Most are for favors. Unlike e-mails, it is terribly difficult to turn someone down over the phone.”
As an influential and hugely popular lecturer, his dislike of mobile phones can be understood. But crowning him as an icon of communication is therefore overblown. Communication is two-way. Phone communication can be unpleasant and annoying, even a waste of time and energy. But communicative leadership can penetrate the noise. E-mail communication, in contrast, can be one-way in the virtual realm.
Ahn’s e-mails are short and simple. His long-time acquaintance and mentor Venerable Pomryun described his e-mail communications with Ahn. Ahn writes that he would like to meet him; the elderly monk tells him the time; Ahn responds with a simple “Okay.” No need for the usual pleasantries of “Thank you” or “Best regards.”
His spiritual friend is positive about Ahn’s to-the-bone language and constrained style. In short, he does not like to give too much away. But in real life, his language brims with ambiguity and multifariousness. Every time he is asked if he will run in the presidential election, he answers with philosophical word play. “I am still in the stage of asking myself if I join politics, won’t I disappoint the longing for social change that has gushed forward symbolically through me?” Is that yes? No? Maybe.
His words are equivocal and open to various interpretations. What is interesting is his tendency to use the passive voice. It’s not the language of a leader. A passive tone can’t win over the public imagination. Its repetition can come across as insincere, shrewd and opportunistic. Voters can get weary of it. The phenomenon he has created could deflate into monotony.
Ahn is well received by loyalists of former President Roh Moo-hyun - but Ahn should not be appraised with the same yardstick as him, for Roh was tested in the political ring, which is a contest of ideology, vision and conflicting interests. A leader is trained in the fighting ring. During the presidential race five years back, the liberal faction closely watched the respected chief executive of paper company Yuhan-Kimberly, Moon Kook-hyun. President-hopeful Roh, however, had his doubts, saying Moon had not been tested in a political mud fight. Ahn does not want to get his feet dirty, either. He may expect red-carpet treatment all the way.
The North Korean wind has again swept across the political stage ahead of the election. Ahn made his usual safe choice of fence-sitting. “I cannot agree that universal value like human rights and peace should be applied to North Korea any differently. But it is also undesirable that the issue spreads to become a harmful ideological debate.” His comment was just. But taking a neutral stance can be seen as side-stepping the controversial issue.
I recall a memorable saying of the late president Roh read during a commemorative service the third year after his death. “A political leader must be clear and resolute in his position. He or she cannot do any work nor offer choices to the people without his own conviction about the future,” he once said. Roh dubbed politics the “art of choice-making.” Former President Kim Young-sam believed in bold choices. His successor Kim Dae-jung valued choices made out of conviction. But Ahn says the choice of running for presidency is not one for him to make. It’s a kind of given. Ahn’s approach differs from past presidents. To him the biggest task of the contemporary generation is “welfare, justice and peace.” Those themes have long topped our society’s agenda. We need to see action. A leader must present a good action plan. In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo’s Economist, Ahn borrowed a quote from the film Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Ahn is as smart as the action hero. But unlike Ahn, Spider-Man does not think twice when facing injustice. Even though it may be a losing fight, he does not run away. Ahn has been weighing his risks too long.
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon