The real test for our next leader

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The real test for our next leader

About 570 years ago, King Sejong was the first to practice “communicative politics” to console and relieve common people from their muffled anguish and frustrations. The commoners, according to the sagacious king, could think and speak but could not express themselves clearly.

Frustration and resentment would build up in the hearts of the voiceless and could explode in a self-destructive manner if they weren’t released. It was not the way of the Confucius nobility to abandon the people in such a state of wretchedness and helplessness. That is how the common language “Hunmin Jeong-eum” (“The Proper Sounds to Educate the People”) was created.

“Our words differ from those of the Chinese and cannot be correctly expressed in Chinese characters,” King Sejong said. “Therefore, the common people cannot fully articulate their thoughts. I with pity have invented a 28-letter alphabet to make their everyday lives easier.”

I am deeply touched whenever I come across this explanation of the motive behind the invention of hangul. How could he have known that the thoughts welling in the hearts of the people, when carried on phonetic sounds and rhythms, could be transformed from woeful cries into poetry and joyful music? How could he have seen that the music orchestrated under the heavens would eventually culminate in politics, which is the voice of the people made manifest and listened to?

His collaborator Jeong In-ji, vice minister in the court of Sejong, wrote, “All the natural sounds - the dogs’ barks, roaring of thunder, the buzzing of mosquitoes - can be jotted down. How limitless would the sounds of the people be?” When the 28 letters came to life in various forms, the thoughts buried in the back of people’s heads materialized and were made manifest in literary form. King Sejong released and freed the people of silent grief and frustration.

What an insight to have understood that letters can transport thoughts. How could a monarch - detached in his palace - place a top priority on inventing letters? Another scholar, Shin Sook-joo, epitomized the political meaning of the creation of hangul: “The phonics were discovered from sounds, rhythm from the phonics, and current affairs from the music. The farsighted people will be blessed with their value.”

Can the candidates aspiring to govern the country half a millennium after the age of Sejong hear the sounds of swelling grievances in the hearts of our people today? Do they have any solutions for that angst?

No matter how wonderful and great the words uttered by the presidential candidates on the campaign trail may be, they fail to reach the hearts of the people. I gave my opinions of the candidates on a recent radio program. Ahn Cheol-soo, an independent candidate, does not appear to have brooded long on his vision of governance. I give most of the credit to his supporters, who think they can reshape the political landscape through Ahn.

Moon Jae-in, candidate of the main opposition Democratic United Party, has the appearance of the friendly next-door neighbor with whom you would share your deepest thoughts - but wouldn’t bother asking for his phone number. And Park Geun-hye, candidate of the ruling Saenuri Party, should mingle more with the people who fought against the authoritarian regime if she’s really serious about saying goodbye to her father Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship.

My sarcastic personal judgment comes from the disappointment that none of the candidates carries an iota of the wisdom of the great King Sejong. Here’s why:

Ahn - the candidate who was seemingly unwillingly propelled into the race - pledges to be the bunker buster to destroy and recreate our political system, but he’s amateurish and unconvincing. Moon, a reincarnated Roh Moo-hyun, is gaining confidence, but still cannot shake off the former president’s ghost. And the princess carries the aura of a leader, but looks too uncomfortable among common people. Ordinary citizens cannot completely connect with any of them.

This nation, in its 5,000 years of history, has never been as rich as today. Yet the people groan with frustration and bitterness.

The cloud of sighs above the credit delinquents, irregular workers, jobless young people, baby-boomers with no retirement plans, low-income people, the extremely poor, senior citizens, small enterprises struggling to stay afloat, merchants, the house poor, farmers and fishermen float ominously over this land.

The eloquent speeches about an innovative economy from Ahn, the “people-first” policy from Moon and the grand social unity promised by Park fall flat in the ears of desperate people. Instead, they release their frustrations by singing and dancing at a free concert downtown by the global sensation Psy.

Without helping to relieve this heaviness in the hearts of the people, Korea’s future is jammed in a bottleneck. The leadership required of the presidential candidates is a crisis management ability needed to navigate through a tumultuous next five years.

What if Japan and China dispatch warships to waters near our islets, which they claim as theirs? What if North Korea strikes again at frontline border islands in the Yellow Sea? What if the Greece-triggered crisis wreaks havoc on the European economy and spills over to the East? And what if the colossal Chinese economy deflates.

The three candidates may not differ greatly in politicking skills, but their qualities in the face of these mega external challenges would be entirely different. Can they supplement their weaknesses by surrounding themselves with competent aides? But recruitment also hinges on good judgment by the president.

We are forgetting the real test - a looming crisis in global economy and international politics - in this campaign. And that’s what the winner is likely to face.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a sociology professor of Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun
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