Our next leader’s challenges

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Our next leader’s challenges


The ambience for the next presidential election is starting to come together. President Park Geun-hye’s declaration of a government-led constitutional amendment to change the single-term five-year presidential system has set the stage for electing the next leadership. The next administration will be born at a perilous period when various structural problems built over the past decades surface and spill over. The next president’s mission will be no less than putting a stagnant Korea Inc. on a brand new path for growth.

Korea faces three-layers of challenges. In the short term, it must ease the war-like tensions on the border and build cushions against the potential implosions of household debt and real estate prices. In the mid-term, the government must pull the economy out of the rut of slow growth and establish systematic policy strategies to place the country among the front-runners of the fourth industrial revolution. In the long-term, the government must address the demographic woes of a low birth rate and an aging population by adding vitality to the economy and enhance transparency in society to push the country out of the middle-income trap.

The constitutional amendment must be designed to restore the credibility of national leadership. Constitutional reform alone will not be sufficient to remove all the stumbling blocks to growth. The lack of a benign cycle to breed human resources has prevented incubation of talents with insights and commitments and limited the resources for national leadership. People are skeptical of any change in the next administration as current limited human resources can only bring about another inner circle.

I had the opportunity to tour the Russian Far East as a part of the Peace Odyssey tour sponsored by the JoongAng Ilbo in August. I was able to ruminate on the angst of our ancestors after losing their country a century ago while tracing the footsteps of independence fighters An Jung-geun and Choi Jae-hyung. During the five-day journey, I explored the question of what choice I would make if the interests of the nation and mine collide.

Everyone wants to commit themselves to what they believe is worthwhile. Its value is composed of righteousness and benefit. The first fits in the realm of meaning and the second the realm of goals or pursuit of gains. One would be seeking a greater cause if it is for the interest of the nation as a whole and a smaller gain if one commits to the goal of the well-being and interests of oneself, one’s family, or a certain group.

Armed with passion and intelligence, An Jung-geun was a rare heroic figure who gave everything up for a great cause. His descendants — our leaders today — are petty, living off the comforts they inherited from earlier generations instead of upholding their selfless legacies. Their fear of losing their fiefdoms has made them indulgent in factionalism. They are leaders engaged in small battles for no real cause.

As result, we are saddled with leaders without passion and intelligence, voiceless bureaucrats that have been excluded from policy-making process, the public struggling with problems due to a government lacking the will or ability to address them, a listless economy and society, apathetic young population and heavily burdened parents, a cowardly intelligentsia, and industries devoid of innovation and entrepreneurship.

We desperately need a new leader who can pull us out of this weary tunnel by showing us a breakthrough. The first bottleneck — a faction-based political structure that has jeopardized the country at every historical point — must be dismantled. The political and electoral system that institutionalized such poor sensibilities need an overhaul through reflection on a new Constitution designed to normalize a habitat breeding the right kind of politicians, politics and national leaders. Figures pursuing heroic causes must be fostered to take roles as national leaders.

Those aspiring to be our next president must promise to the people they will forego their lives and ego for the benefit of the community and nation to lead this country during the current turbulent transitional period. He or she must keep temptations to resort to populism at bay. He or she must stay away from ideological engagement and ensure a fair game in which the winner can appreciate triumph and the loser be proud of his or her contribution. The next president needs to lay out a concrete strategy and vision for the people based on his or her own will and farsightedness instead of leaning on amateurish foresightedness.

Politics is a concept higher than the economy or electoral victory and cannot be half a step ahead of the great body of public opinion. We, as the people, are partly responsible for the current situation we are in. There will be those who play the demagogue, capitalizing on the fury and disgruntlement of the people. We must beware of such figures. We must maintain our principled stand by not falling for foul play and elect a president with a clear head and alert senses.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 26, page 32

*The author, a former minister of commerce, industry and energy, is the chairman of the North East Asian Research Institute.

Chung Duck-koo
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