Tackling four challenges
Back at home, there were two leaders. Outgoing President Kim Young-sam was blaming himself for not acting strongly enough when a currency crisis loomed in Thailand in July 1997. President-elect Kim Dae-jung was eager to seek international relief so as not to see his hard-won triumph go to waste. Emerging markets were rocked. Indonesia was on the brink of declaring bankruptcy. Seoul authorities rang up finance ministers of the G-7 every night to keep the country afloat.
The hectic days of nearly two decades ago came back because of ominous feelings about similarities in today’s Korea. It’s as if we are passing through a lengthy swamp in a heavy storm with a broken compass in our hand. The president faces Constitutional Court deliberations on her impeachment, and the country this year must elect a new leader and combat the worst economic crisis in 20 years.
On top of that, the foreign and security front has gotten murky with the gravest challenges since the Cold War ended. Politicians are entirely preoccupied with winning the hearts of the populace with rival camps fearing an intensifying or a weakening of the public outrage symbolized by the candlelight vigil protests. They neglect the fact that the candles do not solve the multiple problems Korea faces.
We need to put emotions aside and muster our wisdom to recollect on our failures and missteps to combat the crisis and use the momentum to upgrade our political and social system. That task should be our national agenda for this year.
This year, we will have to tackle four challenges.
The first is the economic crisis. The times call for a highly sophisticated surgical removal of malignant tumors across the board. At a time when an economic crisis and presidential election come together, politicians will be overwhelmed with the election. They could compete with unrefined and half-baked ideas to woo votes. We should be vigilant against such recklessness and foolhardiness.
Economic policy should be completely free from political influence so that our economic leadership in this emergency is not shaken by political greed. An emergency economic council should be formed with the best experts with full authority to respond decisively and in a timely manner to the ongoing and fresh challenges.
Second, we must be sure to elect a good leader who can save the country from crisis and restore national leadership. The upcoming presidential election should focus on the enhancement of separation of powers, cooperative leadership, economic, foreign and defense vision and capabilities, as well as insight on resolving structural problems like a slow-moving economy, economic inequalities and unemployment. Inept leadership has gotten the country into today’s mess.
Therefore, it is imperative to discover and select a candidate who does not resort to demagoguery by capitalizing on public outrage from the mainstream, a candidate who demonstrates shrewdness, balanced judgment and capacity to unite people. Our presidential races have usually been ideological contests and a battle among rival groups instead of policy competition.
In order not to err in electing a leader, we need to develop a new screening mechanism to select someone based on vision, sense of balance, problem-solving ability and policies. Well-planned and organized TV debates should be held at least seven times so that the public can make choices after thorough exploration and a study of every aspect of the candidates.
Third, the national governance structure must be rebuilt so that the country can finally be free from ideological wrangling and become united. National leadership has become ill-proportioned and problem-solving capacity has been undermined because of all ills from the concentration of power in the president and the fixation on clan-based politicking.
Therefore, state leadership must be realigned through ensured separation of powers, accountability in politics, and checks and balances among the president, legislature and people. Contests of ideological extremities were what demoralized the national and political system.
The extreme poles must find common ground to bring out unity in the people and cultivate a political culture based on compromise and communication.
Lastly, the national spirit must be normalized and public angst relieved. Social trust and justice must be restored through comforting the people and regaining their confidence. We need to find stability through an orderly process of independent counsel investigation, impeachment trial and presidential election.
Politicians must restrain themselves and work harder to cooperate. If we somehow tackle these challenges, we would come out more mature and capable of leaving healthier fruits for future generation.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 18, Page 28
*The author, a former commerce, industry and energy minister, is chairman of the North East Asian Research Institute.