A test of leadership

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A test of leadership

We are going through tumultuous times, with the escalated North Korean nuclear threat, rise of a populist and nationalist U.S. presidential candidate and a series of powerful natural disasters. In uncertain times like these, it is best to turn to history for lessons and direction.

I decided to run through documents on the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, when the world was on the brink of a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union, for ideas on solutions to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, which has become an imminent and likely danger to us and the rest of the world.

The two Cold War superpowers were at a historic crossroads of deciding whether to enter a nuclear war or an arms agreement after the Soviets placed ballistic missiles and 99 nuclear charges on Cuba, just off just the southeastern coast of the U.S. mainland. The records of U.S. National Security Council meetings chaired by President John F. Kennedy during the nerve-wracking 13 days vividly tell of the courage and resoluteness of a national leader at the tipping point between peace and war. Kennedy ended up persuading the Soviets to pull all nuclear missiles out of Cuba in 13 days, with unwavering conviction that it would protect the people from catastrophic nuclear danger.

I studied the nuclear confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union for two reasons. I believe the present is another critical period in history that could determine whether we can sustain the peace and stability we have enjoyed over the last half century. Yet we cannot expect strong leadership to respond to such challenges with the ruling party of this country oblivious to the changes of such a major transitional time.

The fiasco over the ruling party’s hunger strike against the opposition’s motion to unseat a cabinet minister and arguments by some of its members on the need for nuclear armament against North Korea make the political party look like it is trapped in the 19th century.

Lee Jung-hyun, chairman of the Saenuri Party, waged a seven-day hunger strike protesting National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun in a childish gesture instead of demonstrating mature political skill. A hunger strike should be an honorable selfless action, but his did not sit well with the people who had high hopes for bipartisan leadership during tough times.

Another disappointment from the Saenuri Party was its response to escalating nuclear danger from North Korea. Some members have demanded that we go nuclear in addition to pursuing sanctions, as reconciliation offers have failed to stop Pyongyang from going all-out on its nuclear weapons program.

But such a choice would make us as reclusive as the North. We would have to withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty and risk inviting sanctions from the United States, Japan, China and the European Union. A heavily trade-reliant and open economy like ours wouldn’t last a few days. Shipments will be turned away, and oil and other indispensable raw materials that we depend on for imports will become rare.

Can the ruling party really believe this is the right choice for the people?

While the ruling party opts for an isolationist path, the world is fast changing on economic, security and geopolitical fronts. We have suddenly realized how quickly a new world is coming after watching computer algorithm AlphaGo beat world champion Lee Se-dol in the game of Go, long considered impervious to artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence won’t just make machines and cars smarter.

Depending on how we employ new technology, education, media, legal and medical services as well as the role of the government and political parties could radically change.

The materialization of nuclear weapons in North Korea shifts the status quo that we have maintained for the last decades to an entirely new direction. The trilateral relationship among South Korea, the United States and Japan must be re-established for common defense and deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear threat. We need a bold approach to build stronger ties with China and Russia to defend peace.

We have experienced numerous challenges, from the 1997 financial crisis that sent the country to the brink of bankruptcy to the oil crisis in 1972 and insecurity after a sudden change in the diplomatic relationship between Washington and Beijing in 1971. But we somehow battled through the industrial revolutions of the last century, military instability over several decades and structural changes in our relationship with global powers.

Historical watersheds put political leadership to the test. The question is whether the conservative party, which has led industrial, social and economic progress as the ruling party, now has the right judgment and will to steer us through a new transitional period.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 7, Page 35

*The author is a professor of political science at Chung-Ang University.

Jang Hoon
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