Visionaries or vote-chasers?

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Visionaries or vote-chasers?

We are into the final week before we pick the nation’s 18th president. A presidential election provides the opportunity to polish ideas for a direction for a country’s future. It is a national celebration that invites the entire population to contemplate the way forward with the guidance of the vision expressed in the platforms of the presidential hopefuls.

Korea still has a long way to go. It needs to patch up widening social divisions at home and seek the way of peace and co-prosperity with the international community. It urgently needs to ease tension with North Korea. At the same time, the country has to grow at a sustainable pace so that one day every individual can live comfortably in this land. On Dec. 19, we vote for a new leader who will assume the responsibility to bring this nation closer to those goals.

While we are engrossed with our presidential election, however, an ominous storm is building up in our neighborhood of East Asia. Rising superpower China, the world’s second-largest economy, has performed military exercises in the Yellow Sea, not far from the waters of South Korea. Xi Jinping, new head of the Chinese Communist Party, is expected to build and extend his nation’s clout in the region to counter U.S. influence and strength in tune with the ever-rising nationalistic tendencies of ordinary citizens of China.

After next week’s parliamentary election, Japan is likely to make a decisive political turn to the right under the rule of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. With the LDP likely to win the election, its leader Shinzo Abe will return as prime minister. He vows to rewrite the post-war pacifist constitution to scrap the crucial Article 9 that bars the country from entering war or having an army. He also pledges to overturn the 1993 statement by then-chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono admitting and apologizing for the recruitment of Asian women as sex slaves for the Imperial Army of Japan. He wants to reverse history in a desperate and emotional attempt to rebuild Japan’s waning strength and influence.

The incoming government of South Korea, which shares seas with China and Japan, will inevitably be caught between the two antagonistic governments. It would have to step around a delicate but tough tug-of-war between the two economically important nations, which made it all the more difficult considering the difficult history of East Asia. As the chief executive of our nation’s foreign affairs and defense, the incoming president will have to navigate in such stormy waters.

Yet we have heard no weighty comments or strategies with any particular insight from presidential hopefuls on foreign and security affairs. None of the candidates has wanted a serious debate on the issues during the campaign. Even worse, they stayed mum on the danger of North Korea testing its fifth long-range rocket yesterday, which the international community condemns as a trial of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

The candidates conspicuously lack strategies in regards to the global economy too. The world is in a delicate state in the face of credit crises in Europe and the so-called “fiscal cliff” disaster-waiting-to-happen in the U.S. The Korean economy, which relies on external demand for as much as 80 percent of its strength, automatically shares such dangers abroad. Yet none of the candidates have addressed challenges from global economic problems or come up with appropriate prescriptions to protect and sustain the local economy. None are willing to warn people about hard times ahead or say how they will plead for cooperation and unite the nation to weather the storm together.

The promises in their public addresses, debates and campaign literature lack awareness of the stark realities and instead brim over with extravagant welfare benefits and populist pledges. They woo voters with rosy promises without paying heed to how they will pay for all the increased spending. They came up with some grand ideas of unbiased appointments and partisan-free government, the political equivalent of unicorns and rainbows. But they really just want to win the election no matter what.

The presidential election has become a contest not between visions of the future, but peripheral issues. The new president may end up representing a faction or a supporting group rather than the whole nation. In an elected system, it’s natural to live up to the demands of the 99 percent majority. But a genuine leader does not neglect the voice of the 1 percent minority. A president has the duty to serve every one of his country’s people. A candidate chasing votes - instead of working on a vision for the nation - merely represent his or her voters or party.

A true leader should be able to draw a big picture for the nation and the well-being of its people. He or she should be bold enough to articulate positions on foreign affairs, defense and international economic affairs that can affect the country’s future and destiny - even if doing so won’t immediately help win votes. In fact, that is the kind of work that takes up most of a president’s time once he is in office. The people want a visionary leader, not a blind vote-chaser.

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

by Chae In-taek
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