The curse of the winner
I thought about Korea’s foreign currency crisis 20 years ago. In the 1996 general election, the ruling party of President Kim Young-sam had a landslide victory. Intoxicated by the victory, the ruling party didn’t detect signs of a perilous economy and brought on a national catastrophe. President Kim was reluctant to pursue a restructuring of insolvent conglomerates for political reasons, and the opposition presidential candidate, Kim Dae-jung, advocated popular economic theories to unite supporters. Because National Assembly members did not return to the legislature as they joined the presidential candidates’ campaign, the financial reform bill was not dealt with.
While Kim Dae-jung was elected president in 1997, he was left with a low foreign currency reserve on the verge of national bankruptcy.
President Kim adjusted his ideas and direction, strictly followed the rules and settled the crisis early. Later, he told aides how he spent sleepless nights worrying about the curse of the winner. Victory harbors the curse of the winner, and failure can bring another opportunity.
Does history repeat itself? As we are standing at the threshold of changes, leaders’ misjudgment and obstinacy could ruin the future of the nation. The opposition parties could fall into the curse of the winner if they misguide state affairs in the course of crisis management. There are several tests before them. Major issues, including corporate restructuring, are waiting for new direction and choices. Citizens will evaluate whether the political leaders are the Great Stone Face, who choose the interests of the community when factional and personal interest collide with national interests.
The remaining 20 months of President Park Geun-hye’s term are important. It is the crucial period to stop the slump and focus on national restructuring to turn the direction upward. President Park must change her mind-set and attitude. She needs to re-evaluate her state management over the last three years and overcome the administrative crisis through communication. President Park must succumb to an army of sycophants. She must also be reminded of how important personnel decisions are. The remaining 20 months are enough time to revamp the state administration. But it is also enough time to drive the country into crisis with misjudgment.
President Park needs to squarely look at the fact that the Kim Young-sam administration failed to avoid the path to crisis and is remembered in history as the sinner. In the 1990s, Japanese political leaders didn’t predict the bubble burst and failed to change the flow, resulting in more than two decades of prolonged economic slump.
President Park should learn from former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who settled the post-unification chaos and economic slowdown and led Germany to emerge as a new power in global economics. Schröder advocated Agenda 2010 for large-scale restructuring and integrated the public opinion in the Hartz plan. He lost the general election, ironically because of the success of his policy. Park should model after his self-sacrifice.
Korean people must elect a president who can successfully lead the fate of Korea for 60 months. In this century, we have come to believe that even an ordinary person can become president. Certain presidents didn’t understand the priority of the state administration and were good at political engineering. They were elected without any vision or insight. They produced unripe policies and finished the term after spraying water on the leaves when the root was rotten. In the meantime, the Korean economy ended its short period of acceleration and entered a slump.
Just as Harvard University Prof. Kenneth Rogoff underscored, the situation before us is very different from the past. We are at a crucial juncture to make sure we don’t go into a pitfall. It is a historic task given to all of us to find the Great Stone Face with determination, wisdom and audacity for president.
Who is the Great Stone Face? First, he or she must have a long-term vision, value expertise and common sense, and be equipped with a sense of balance. Second, they should lead the nation into integration and reconciliation rather than being swayed by factionalism and regionalism. Third, they must persuade citizens to create a foundation for reunification and lead national restructuring. Fourth, they should choose the interest of the nation when personal and political interests collide with national interests. Last, they must play the role of an icebreaker for the future instead of being afraid of taking risks.
Politicians with presidential ambitions must reflect on whether they are really fit to lead the nation at this critical moment.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 4, Page 32
*The author, a former minister of commerce, industry and energy, is chairman of the North East Asian Research Foundation.