A modest proposalA recent review calling the U.S.-style presidential debates “a childish, farcical play of words” highlights the standard of Korean politics. None of the candidates show any kind of weight or charisma befitting a leader. That could be the limitation of a horse race between two five-year politicians, Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo, in a hurriedly scheduled election. The campaign looks more like an impromptu stage among amateur performers.
An entirely different strategy and factor can determine the May 9 snap election. In other words, a contestant with modesty and honesty instead of exaggeration and rosy promises could end up a victor.
First of all, voters are entirely disillusioned by campaign promises after being utterly betrayed by the impeached President Park Geun-hye. The sense of distrust and betrayal is imprinted in the minds of voters as they have come to witness the epic fall from grace of the country’s first female president, who was elected mostly thanks to her promise of clean and honest politics. Voters have painfully learned how illusionary political promises often are.
Despite vows to make everyone happy, former President Park proved to have made only her friend, Choi Soon-sil, and Choi’s daughter happy. Her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who had been elected on the assurance that he would achieve economic growth of 7 percent, per capita income of $40,000 and the world’s seventh largest economy, instead worsened income inequality and delayed restructuring. The liberal president before him, Roh Moo-hyun, pledged to be a president for the people, but was a leader for liberals and liberals alone.
A front-runner throughout the race, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party is moderating his strategy here in the final round. He veered from his steadfast slogan to end past evils to now chanting about integration to woo conservatives.
It should be no surprise as politicians are experts in reversing their positions. Moon’s pledge on chaebol crackdown is doubtful. His party, along with the Saenuri Party, has long dominated our political landscape and acted as a sort of “political chaebol.” Could he overhaul chaebol corruption without first correcting the political sector? His rival, Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party, also has reversed his opposition to the government’s plan to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system and is using his background in entrepreneurship to pitch a promise that he will marshal the country towards the fourth industrial revolution.
But the public no longer buys vain plans devoid of specifics. These candidates should be honest, frankly admitting their weakness and apologizing for changing their minds. None of them have clear solutions to the sad reality that one out of every ten young Koreans is without a salaried job. Their fantasies only lead to more betrayal.
Voters demand each candidate acknowledge their limitations. No aspiring presidential candidate can solve the challenges of belligerent North Korea, domineering China and a vulnerable economy in which 80 percent of growth hinges on external demand. Both Moon and Ahn lack that kind of political aptitude.
Even strongman Park Chung Hee, who had achieved industrialization for the country, fell from economic misfortune. The operation ratio of the heavy chemical industry dipped to half its capacity a year before he was assassinated on Oct. 26, 1979. That year, the country was plagued with fears of bankruptcy on snowballing foreign debt and the oil shock on top of its worse-ever drought and business slump. The opposition won over the ruling party by 1.1 percent in the general election on Dec. 12, 1978. The economy had grown 10 percent annually, but now contracted to 1.7 percent growth in the following year. A leader’s self-indulgence always betrays him in the end.
A single leader cannot navigate a country with increasing influence of overseas factors. Businessman-turned-president Lee Myung-bak could not fight off the shock waves of a global meltdown in 2008, despite his experience in construction. Nothing has been achieved during the Park Geun-hye administration, as her aides and cabinet members dutifully jotted down her instructions. Regardless of who wins, the president will have to steer the country with majority opposition.
There is one option for the next president. He must recruit a competent prime minister and ministers for foreign and economic policies. He should decentralize power or form a coalition. While leaving everyday affairs to the prime minister, the president instead must concentrate on uniting the people and gaining an understanding of big governance.
If the next leader cannot unite the nation, South Korea could be isolated in the region. Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia all have totalitarian command over their countries. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe boasts an approval rating of 60 percent. U.S. President Donald Trump also turns to offensive strategies with China, North Korea and Syria. The Korean president would be a weak loner among these five strongmen if he cannot unite the nation.
The upcoming election requires the best judgment from every voter. We must cross off the bluffers, liars, deceivers and dividers. The most humble and human person capable of integrating the country should become the 19th president of South Korea.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 26, Page 35
*The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.