[Viewpoint] Apology time comes again

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[Viewpoint] Apology time comes again

Apologies from a president have become a late-term tradition in Korea. A president’s speech writers would do well to have a template ready for the apology speech even before the inauguration. U.S. President Barack Obama has been criticized and even ridiculed by opponents for his proneness to apologies. After his nominees for the cabinet failed to get congressional approval, he apologized for messing up. On the foreign front, he is famous for his “apology tours,” atoning for past national sins to Muslim community, to France and to Europe for “American arrogance.”

Compared to Obama’s humility and the spectacle of an American president bowing to other nations, mea culpas by South Korean presidents might be small beans. A person who apologizes easily is usually modest and practical and that is usually commendable in a leader. Someone who admits his own mistakes and follies would be unlikely to repeat them and therefore recognizes the need for self-improvement.

The problem is that apologies by our presidents are rarely prompted by policy blunders or mistakes in the running of the nation. They’re always for scandalous corruption and wrongdoings of that sort.

Americans generally approve of Obama apologies, but regard one from Nixon over the Watergate debacle shameful. An apology is a promise that the same wrongdoing won’t happen again - but it is hard to believe in the sincerity of such an apology when it is repeated time after time from one administration to another.

When prosecutors in 1995 disclosed slush funds of billions of won in secret bank accounts, President Roh Tae-woo publicly wept and called himself a fool. But they turned out to be crocodile tears since he recently filed a lawsuit against his in-laws to retrieve some of that money. It’s no wonder we doubt the sincerity of that emotional mea culpa.

Presidents who pledged they would fight against corruption all ended up blushing and bowing late in their terms after their names were linked to corruption. They vowed to punish any wrongdoings committed by their family members, but those promises vanished once they were settled in the presidential office. They only heard and believed what they wanted. One politician who served in the presidential office recalled that he could not open his mouth a third time when the president disliked what he had heard already twice.

Many recommended President Kim Young-sam send his politically-ambitious son Hyun-chul overseas at the beginning of his term. But the president looked the other way whenever anyone mentioned his son’s name. It was a habit of Kim’s to turn to another topic when he did not like what he was hearing. Bad news about his son was reported to the president, but it backfired on the messenger, who was labeled and watched.

President Kim Dae-jung was no different. The long-time dissident-turned president was weak before his sons. He believed his sons’ claims that they had not received a dime until the very end when they were sent to prison. Kim felt sorry for them after all the suffering he brought them during his years as a democracy activist.

President Lee Myung-bak was also advised by many to send his elder brother, veteran lawmaker Lee Sang-deuk, overseas. All presidents believe their terms will be different. But at the end of the day, the president is culpable for the wrongdoings of family members and aides.

One senior staffer of the presidential office said presidents usually wake up after returning to their homes after retiring from office and spending the first night. One aide of President Roh Tae-woo warned the president that he could face tough post-retirement days a year before his term ended. The president is said to have turned red and scolded him.

But he trembled when his successor said in a televised conference that he had ordered an investigation into the corruption of his predecessor. He had woken up to reality.

Preoccupation with corruption leads to a vacuum of power in the final year of presidency. It is the people who are victimized. They were harder hit economically because of it. In his apology speech this week, President Lee promised to pour all his efforts into his work until his final day in office. Well said, but Lee probably is out of touch with the real world because his administration’s officials are lying low until the next government moves in. Or he might have an inkling of that. In a recent talk with students, Lee said he wasn’t sure if anyone wanted to apply for the president’s job any more. It is unfortunate for the country and its people that a year goes to waste every five years.

In order to avoid such a hiatus in governing, the president should keep vigilance against his people. Decentralization of power would be one way. The president should also escape from his palace. How can the president keep in touch with the people and reality when he is tucked away? We wish to see the next president amongst aides, officials and ordinary people talking and debating. Otherwise the apologies may never end.

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

by Kim Jin-kook

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