[Viewpoint] Character and power

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[Viewpoint] Character and power

Each person has his or her own different character. We are born a certain way to some extent and also shaped and defined by experiences, learning and the self-awareness we become aware of in the trajectory of our lives. One’s character can often change the direction of an individual’s path. So too can a leader’s character move a nation.

The office of the presidency is given legitimate authority. And all presidents are given more or less the same amount of authority. But the way that authority is exercised can differ widely, largely due to the president’s character. A weak and insecure leader will wield wavering and unreliable power. A strong and resolute leader will exercise his authority with self-confidence. As the adage goes, “Power is what you do and character is what you are.”

I hate to join the chorus of complainers about a lame-duck president who has less than a half year left in his term. But Seoul’s last-minute pull-out of a military deal with Tokyo to exchange classified information on mutual concerns like China’s military and North Korea’s weapons programs underscores how important a leader’s character is to state governance. The intelligence-sharing pact would have served as a landmark deal for the two countries amid the growing military assertiveness of China and the unpredictability of North Korea.

Opposition was understandable as a military deal with a formerly ruthless colonial ruler cannot be easily accepted by the average Korean. To shake off such ill feelings from the past for the sake of the future is admittedly a lot easier said than done. Sentiments aside, however, there is another important factor to consider, and that is China. A military deal with Japan could cost us something in out relationship with China, a country which we cannot ignore not only in terms of its rising status regionally and globally, but also for our ultimate goal of unifying a divided Korea. Economically speaking, we rely on China a lot as our largest trading partner.

The cabinet that secretly approved the deal was stopped in its tracks by a loud media and the normally obstreperous politicians. An agreement of such importance should have been publicly discussed and the cabinet should have debated the issue rigorously. The deal, however, was passed by the cabinet while the president was on an overseas tour, an arrangement presumably dreamt up to get the president off the hook in case a controversy brewed up. Upon clamorous protest over the secret deal, Seoul called it off just half an hour before its scheduled signing. Tokyo officials were naturally dumbfounded by the literally “last-minute” brushoff. Seoul lost credibility big time.

If the deal was that important, why didn’t the president try to seek public understanding? What’s more disappointing, the onus was dumped on working-level presidential secretaries and director-generals of the Foreign Ministry. What about the prime minister and cabinet ministers who rubber-stamped the deal in a cabinet meeting? Were they trained to act like puppets? Did the president pick them specifically for such a role?

If so they are an impotent, insensible and irresponsible lot. They are worse than the ministers of the Joseon Dynasty court who were forced by Ito Hirobumi to sign the 1905 Eulsa Treaty making Joseon a protectorate of Japan. Then Prime Minister Han Gyu-seol and two others resisted. King Gojong took to hiding, shifting all responsibility to his ministers. When he was caught by a Chinese envoy secretly signing a deal with Russia, the king drew back insisting he was kept in the dark by his ministers. He also denied that he sent delegates to the Hague Peace Convention to protest Japans’ imperialistic designs on Korea. Due to his poor character, he has been stigmatized as cowardly and opportunistic. His weak character lost the country to Japan.

Looking back, President Lee Myung-bak has also been evasive through his term. When the public protested the government’s decision to resume American beef imports, he said he was so upset that he climbed the hills behind the presidential residence and sang “Morning Dew,” a student protest song.

When the Cheonan naval ship was sunk during a patrol, the presidential office hurriedly told the government and media not to jump to conclusions about North Korea’s role. When the island of Yeonpyeong came under shelling by North Korea, the presidential office told the military not to expand the skirmish.

There have been numerous cases when the president ducked and hid. A leader must fight for his belief and demonstrate courage when necessary. Most of all, he must take responsibility for his actions. But we have seen none of that from this administration. Irresponsibility in leadership comes from ignorance of the public nature of authority. The incumbent government messed up because it used public power as a personal privilege. The arrest of Lee’s elder brother, controversy over the purchase of a luxurious post-retirement residence and a series of corruption scandals related to his aides all came about because the president personalized state authority.

Our political axis is divided into the conservative against liberal. But when authority is exercised, it is not ideology but the character of the leader that makes the difference. We must choose a leader who will uphold the integrity of authority. Weak, irresponsible and factional leadership cannot steer this country. We must first decide what kind of character we want in our new leader.


*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Moon Chang-keuk

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