Korea, German style

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Korea, German style


The British may have invented the game of soccer, but they turn babyish and clumsy when they face the Germans. They joke that “the only way to improve the Anglo-German relationship on the football field is if they let us win once in a while.” No matter what star players they fielded, fouls they made and racket they raised on and off the pitch, the English team lost almost every important game against Germany. Germans seldom lose their cool so on the field. They just do their thing - all skill, strength and impeccable teamwork. They give nothing away and hold fast to FIFA’s No.1 ranking.

I recently met Yoon Jeung-hyun, a former finance minister. He is well-versed in international affairs and successfully hosted the Group of 20 meeting for finance ministers and central bank governors in Seoul in 2010. I asked him what had been the most memorable speech. Without hesitation, he named the address by former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to the German Social Democratic Party conference in 2011 as the best public speech of the 21st century. The 93-year-old veteran politician stood on the podium for an hour to preach on the continuing need for European unification. He was addressing Germans as they resisted financing and bailing out money-losing Greece. The German public was outraged the country was expected to pay for Greece’s profligacy and recklessness.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was stuck between mounting pressure from other European Union members to do more to help out and a disgruntled and resentful public at home. Merkel’s conservative coalition lost in major elections and faced a growing dilemma over what to do about Greece. She was on the verge of losing power if coalition partner Social Democrats pulled out. This was when the party’s bigwig stepped up and persuaded the coalition to hold its ground with a powerful, unequivocal message. Schmidt took the audience back through the long history of wars and conflicts in Europe, “as a very old man thinks naturally in long time spans.”

Then he expounded on why Germany had to be “in and with Europe.” He reminded his countrymen and party members that “we Germans have made others suffer under our central power position” and that “all our neighbors still have suspicions” and Germans for generations have had to live with this historic burden. He argued that a common debt was inevitable and Germans must not refuse to accept it. “We Germans must gain clearness about our own task, our role within the context of European integration,” said Schmidt. His message was clear - help support Merkel to save the European Union. His landmark speech served as a game changer.

It is not easy to comprehend German political leaders. They put the interests of the country before their own even when votes are at stake. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in 2010 launched “Agenda 2010,” the biggest postwar labor and social welfare reform, despite strong resistance from his own left-wing Social Democratic Party with its voter base drawn largely from laborers. Schroder’s party lost the subsequent election, but the ailing German economy was revived thanks to greater flexibility in the labor market because of the reform. The right-wing party does the same. Merkel persuaded her conservative Christian Democratic party to close down nuclear reactors and expand welfare plans, including increasing the minimum wage by accepting the demands from its left-wing counterpart.

In the field of politics, Koreans are as childish compared with the Germans as the British are with football. They are busy drawing lines, even on the same team. How would our politics look if we were to import German-style politicking? Main opposition leader Moon Jae-in would declare in a party convention that welfare populism is beyond the country’s affordability and demand the overhaul of universal welfare programs. President Park Geun-hye would admit that greater welfare benefits without raising taxes are delusional and persuade the ruling conservative party to push ahead with tax increases on wealthy individuals and companies. We may finally see the end of never-ending knee-jerk opposition and political wrangling between two traditional rival factions.

The German way of soccer, welfare and politics is envious, but not easy to mimic. About 80 percent of Germans are middle-class and centrist. When they were persuaded that their country most benefited from the integration of European currency, they went along with the plan to help out the Greeks. They had confidence in their political leaders that they have a bigger picture in mind and would work for their best interests. It is why four chancellors have led the country - each for 10 years stably - in coalition for the last 40 years after unification. Germans have devout admiration for wise politicians. Schmidt, at 96, is still a heavy smoker. Despite a ban against smoking, the old politician is allowed to enjoy his smoke anywhere, anytime saying a puff from the wise is no pollution.

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 17, Page 30

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho

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