The next president’s challenges
When I was a junior public servant, I had a very uncomfortable conversation with a director who was known for his unique and tough character. He asked us, “Do you know what will be the best way to serve the country patriotically for a public servant who lacks ability and preparation?”
We could not answer, so he did. “That person must not serve an important position within government. That is the way to serve the country patriotically.” At that time, I perceived his remarks as an insult, but it later became my mantra throughout my career in public service.
I want to warn the presidential candidates that running this country is not easy. It will be particularly difficult and challenging because Korea is in turmoil right now. The upcoming election therefore should test the candidates’ ability to cooperate with other factions to forge policies. It should test the candidates’ comprehensive problem-solving skills.
No matter who it will be, a president must serve the duty and mission of the times. The late President Kim Young-sam faced the historic mission of ending military culture and creating a transparent society. He left his mark in history. The late President Kim Dae-jung had many ambitious goals, but history gave him the mission of overcoming the 1997-98 foreign exchange crisis, shifting the country’s industrial focus to components and material industries and ushering in the information age. In the end, he left three marks in history.
The late President Roh Moo-hyun, who struggled with realizing his policies, also left two important legacies. The first is the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, and the other is the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island. Despite fierce opposition from his core supporters, he completed those two missions, and because of that, history still remembers Roh.
What will be the cause of the next president? Right now, as South Korea is exposed to its most serious security threats since the Korean War, our economic and social development has stalled. After the country was trapped in a giant structure of collusion, society became a barren land ruled by the establishment. As a result, we fell deep into political, economic and security crises. Saving the country from these threats is the mission of the next president. To achieve this mission, the next president must leave four important marks in our history.
The first will be overcoming the security crisis on the Korean Peninsula and reconstructing security and foreign affairs strategies to meet the current situation. The security risks are so high right now, it’s as if we are on the brink of a war. We are losing our leverage amid conflicts between the United States and China.
We must not struggle between the two superpowers and form our own diplomatic framework of a middle power. We must solidify the Korea-U.S. alliance while normalizing relations with neighbors, including China, to overcome the nuclear crisis.
The second will be reforming the political ecosystem with a constitutional amendment and dismantling the grand collusion structure controlled by the establishment. We must introduce a system of division of powers and cooperative politics, and we must reform the National Assembly in order to improve the productivity of political and policy processes. Established forces must be dismantled, and fair competition must be guaranteed to restore the country’s health.
The third mark will be restoring household economies. Since the foreign exchange crisis, the domestic economy has continued to slow. Household income, expenses, assets and debt are the four key pillars of the household economy. Problems in each are now converging, and the risks are escalating explosively. We must take this issue seriously. The next administration must make restoration of the household economy a top policy priority.
The fourth mark will be restructuring the industrial framework and boosting entrepreneurship. We have missed many crucial targets for industrial restructuring. The competitiveness of many key companies has weakened, and they are gradually losing competitiveness against China and Japan.
We need to push forward industrial restructuring with systemic effort, and it must be converged with the fourth industrial revolution to draw a new industrial road map. To this end, the leadership of the government and entrepreneurship are desperately needed. Restructuring can only succeed when the technological capabilities of the private sector work together with entrepreneurship.
Who will achieve the four marks best? The voters must scrutinize and examine the candidates thoroughly. Whoever the next president will be must focus on the future and overcome this crisis by using the best capable people of our time.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 12, Page 28
*The author, a former commerce, industry and energy minister, is chairman of the North East Asian Research Institute.