Our new president’s agenda

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Our new president’s agenda

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We are probably making the history book of free democracies, at least as a footnote. There’s only a week left to go before candidate registration and a month until the actual election day, yet we are not exactly sure who will be running in our presidential election. Some fulminate over the kind of banana republic we live in. Others shrug it off. We’ve gotten through the turgid early days of the campaign. We might as well wait a few more days to see if fireworks start.

We will eventually get our ballots. The main candidates will probably be winnowed down to two, and then they can take off from the starting line sprinting as hard as they can. The voters will finally get a chance to compare them as they head for the finish line. But we have trained long and hard in how to cram. We Koreans are famous for the speed in which we learn things or get things done. Why shouldn’t it be the same in this campaign?

It is said that age makes one patriotic. I too have grown really proud of our country. When younger, I used to be embarrassed about being Korean. My heart became heavy whenever I looked out a jet window on my way home from trips to richer and more advanced nations. The succession of grey buildings and the picture of Korean multitudes engaged in their hard labors looked so pitiful.

Those were the old days.

I recently returned from a trip to Cambodia. Coming through Incheon Airport, I suddenly felt a lump in my throat. My eyes welled as I looked around at the spacious and luxurious airport and the super-confident-looking Korean travelers. The view from my car window - wide highways and clean surroundings - suddenly made me proud. That’s not what I see when I visit the U.S. or Europe these days.

A country that started from the rubble of war with few resources and existing on hand-outs from the American Army has been transformed in less than half a century into a rags-to-riches story and a country that has gone from autocracy to democracy in an inspiring manner.

Our parents worked around the clock to educate their children with hopes for a better future. Bureaucrats and entrepreneurs started from naught to build companies, laws and systems. Democracy activists sacrificed their lives and young girls their youths to contribute to the freedom and comforts we enjoy today.

I am thankful to all the presidents, from dictatorial Syngman Rhee to modern democratic leaders Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak, for leaving their mark in history and on their nation. There have been shadows as well as lights in our trajectory. There were lessons to learn from both follies and daring successes. Outgoing President Lee helped protect the country from the global financial crisis of 2008 and raised its international status. We must give credit where it is due.

The three main presidential candidates will soon be two if the liberal camp gets its act together. It won’t make much of a difference which of the two men runs. No matter who wins, the incoming president will have to change political, welfare and economic policies.

This election shows the strides we have made by the sole fact that the candidates share a common goal of reinventing a country that has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and one of the lowest birth rates.

I recently attended the 2012 Beijing Forum, where scholars from around the world discussed various issues that plague the globe. I was intrigued by Argentine economist Emilio Ocampo’s presentation. He blamed political impotence in addressing the problem of economic polarization and mentioned Argentina’s fall to middle-income rank after once being one of the world’s sixth- to seventh- largest countries in terms of gross domestic product. Politicians resorted to populist measures that relied on the flow of wealth and ended up deepening the schisms among different classes and weakening the country’s foundations and growth. To maintain democracy, income inequalities need to be balanced, but without damping the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, he argued.

Rules would have to be modified according to the needs of the time. Once established, they should be obeyed without exception. It will be the incoming president’s historic role to ensure so. When faithfully fulfilled, he or she would have done their part in making this nation better.

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

by Bae Myung-bok

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