Keep the continuity flowingOn the morning after her victory in the Dec. 19 election, President-elect Park Geun-hye went to the National Cemetery and paid respects to three past presidents - Syngman Rhee, Park Chung Hee and Kim Dae-jung - to send a symbolic message. She wanted to underscore her campaign slogan on social unity and at the same time demonstrate her will to maintain continuity in the Korean government.
While uniting the people in times of polarization and division is a significant step for a leader to take, maintaining the continuity of government policies can ensure state legitimacy and stability beyond the president’s tenure. But it is not an easy task for a leader to pursue social unity as well as continuity in the government while coming up with new approaches and actions to cope with various challenges, changes and tests at home and abroad.
The fissures and conflicts in Korean politics may appear bigger than they actually are. Even when the power has been shifted from conservatives to liberals several times since direct presidential elections in the late 1980s, some major government policies have outlived power shifts over the decades despite the ideological leanings of the current government.
The “national community unification program,” a comprehensive blueprint for reunification with North Korea since it was first mapped out through consultation with the public and the legislature in 1989, was respected as the basic formula for unification by five presidents - Roh Tae-woo, Kim Youg-sam, Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak.
The basic principle is that the two state regimes will separately exist on the Korea Peninsula, but South and North Korea will endeavor to restore unity in the community for peaceful co-existence. The reconciliatory overture led to the landmark joint entry of the two Koreas to the United Nations, the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement and the joint declaration on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Regardless of the fact that North Korea has alarmingly escalated tensions on the peninsula due to its obsession with its nuclear weapons program, the formula - based on mutual recognition - remains more persuasive than the two-state solution prescribed for Israel and Palestine for peace in the Middle East.
President Lee Myung-bak, who brought the conservatives back to power for the first time in a decade with a 5 million vote gap, demonstrated a strong will to maintain both the continuity and legitimacies of government policies by trying to carry out the inherited policies of the preceding Roh Moo-hyun government - despite the difficulties involved.
The liberal Roh administration initiated the ambitious policies of forging a Free Trade Agreement with the United States to push a traditional security alliance to a new political and economic level, building a naval base in Jeju Island to enhance our self-defense ability in the waters of Northeast Asia - which have turned into a hot bed for disputes among global powers - and creating the new administrative capital of Sejong City to decentralize away from Seoul for balanced growth. President Lee struggled to follow through with the ambitious plans of his predecessor, and despite the controversies and huge political cost, Lee unwaveringly upheld the continuity in the government.
It is premature to turn out a comprehensive performance review of the outgoing Lee Myung-bak administration that ends in less than a week. But to maintain its hard-won global status, the country must keep up with several key policy accomplishments.
By hosting the Group of 20 summit meeting in Seoul, South Korea played the middleman and brought the advanced countries closer with emerging powers like China, India and Brazil, and should continue to aggressively serve the role with other middle powers like Canada and Australia. The function of the G-20 is now in question despite its concerted - and effective - efforts in combating the global financial crisis of 2008. But its role nevertheless is in demand amid the threatening danger of a currency war triggered by Japan’s ultra-eased monetary policy.
Seoul also must keep up with its leadership and efforts in a global campaign to address the hazards of global warming and climate changes through drastic cuts in greenhouse gases and environmental conservation. Our initiative on green growth based on a drive to seek a new growth base through energy-saving measures and development of renewable energies has generated great interest from many developing countries. It may not be easy to live up to global expectations, but keeping up our environmental drive will be important for our global diplomatic stature as well.
Sustaining major government policies can contribute to safeguarding the legitimacy of the government as well as uniting the people. The means, however, should not be carried out in an authoritarian manner. We expect the incoming Park Geun-hye government to demonstrate exemplary leadership in striking a balance between maintaining the continuity of government policies and showing creativity to effectively address the challenges of the times.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is former prime minister of Korea and an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo