Abraham, Nelson and BarackAfter her presidential victory in 2012, Park Geun-hye went to the Saenuri Party and promised to “bid farewell to the history of division and conflict with reconciliation and grand harmony.” Four years later, she did the exact opposite: split the country between the candlelight vigil attendees demanding she quit and the so-called Flag Movement protesters demanding she stay in office. Then she was booted out of the Blue House ending up at a detention center.
Granted the imperial power of the presidency, Park allowed an inner circle run by Choi Soon-sil to go after their own private gains. Incompetent presidential aides earned the nickname the “kids of the Blue House.” She ran the country in a manner that had nothing to do with reconciliation or unity.
Major candidates for the upcoming presidential election are now raising the flag of unity. As long as Korea is trapped in the deep discord between pro-Park and anti-Park factions, pro-Moon and anti-Moon factions, conservative and liberal, and rich and poor, no pledge of the candidates will be realized properly. Interest groups will surely put a strain on their plans from all directions.
That was why Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party paid his respects at the graves of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee during a visit to the National Cemetery, although he had ignored them until now.
Can we trust the promise of reconciliation and grand unity by the candidates? Are they capable of restoring the cohesion of our society, which has plummeted after Park’s impeachment and detention? Do they have vision? Can they embrace all the people when they become the president by giving up on factionalism?
Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have such abilities. They could try to learn from the wisdom of leaders who accomplished great reconciliations and grand compromises in history. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, and Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, are good examples. Our presidential candidates must study them thoroughly.
Lincoln, a Republican nominee, won the presidency during the Civil War. He appointed William Seward as secretary of state and Salmon Chase as secretary of the treasury although they were his rivals in the party. Asked by a reporter why he named rivals to his cabinet, Lincoln responded that he wanted to unite the people and they were elite members of the party with abilities. Lincoln said he had no right to deprive the people of being served by them.
Barack Obama also appointed Hillary Clinton, his primary rival, as secretary of state, a model practice for Korean candidates.
Mandela was a politician who realized grand reconciliation and compromise by embracing his rivals, setting a truly unique example in the history of politics. South Africa was established in the 17th century by the Dutch immigrants. Europeans from France, England and Germany joined and a new group, Afrikaners, who speak a new language, Afrikaans, was created.
The Afrikaners, who comprise only 5.4 percent of the South African population, prompted Apartheid — a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination against black Africans — and severely abused their human rights.
In his 20s, Mandela joined the struggle against Apartheid. He was imprisoned for 27 years, including painful years of forced labor.
In the 1980s, the international community’s pressure and economic sanctions against the white South African government were reinforced. After witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany in 1989, South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk unconditionally set free Mandela in February 1990. He also recognized Mandela’s African National Congress as a legitimate political party. After his release from the prison, Mandela gave a speech before 100,000 people in Johannesburg and declared he would dedicate himself to peace and reconciliation with the white minority.
After becoming the first black president of the country in 1994, Mandela paid special attention to the outcomes of other African countries’ oppressions of white people. After some countries became independent, their white economic elites left and the nations failed to build the kind of economies that were needed. But Mandela created the ideal vision of South Africa as a multiracial, rainbow country.
Mandela named his predecessor de Klerk — the number 1 enemy of the black Africans at one time — as deputy president in a government of national unity and also appointed five members of the National Party of de Klerk to his cabinet. He even conceded the presidential residence to de Klerk. He overcame objections by black South Africans through the principle of not being racist and through his charismatic leadership.
Instead of shouting abstract concepts of reconciliation and grand unity, our presidential candidates must learn the true spirit of grand reconciliation and compromise from the examples of Lincoln, Mandela and Obama, who all embraced their rivals. The security situation of the Korean Peninsula is even more urgent than ever. Internal reconciliation is the first step to dealing with the security crisis. A clear vision of reconciliation and unity and strong will are needed from the new president. For our next leader, Park’s failure is actually a useful lesson.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 7, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.