Requirements for leadership
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Korea has a presidential system with virtually no accountability. As its presidents are the equivalents of elected kings of the past, they centralized power and did whatever they wished with it. This is the origin of the unique presidential culture in Korea, where no president has had a happy ending. President Moon Jae-in’s pledge to create a “country no one has experienced” was convincing because the public had hopes for politics different from the past, something that was based on common sense and the people’s will.
The tragic irony is that no one thinks the Moon administration is — or will be — different. Moon is halfway through his term, and people are beginning to think it’s Season 2 of the Park Geun-hye administration with only a slightly different cast. The appointments in the last administration were disastrous and arbitrary. So too with Moon’s. Division of public opinion is something I am used to seeing. Blaming others without taking responsibility is also a presidential tradition. The president and all the president’s men used to criticize that as ridiculous when they were out of power. Now they don’t even recognize what they have become.
Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk did not resign voluntarily. He was practically run out of town by the people. The public was divided into two groups, it must be admitted, and sharply split between their rallies at Gwanghwamun Square and Seocho-dong. Still, they sealed Cho’s fate. Now, the legal wheels are turning, and his fate may turn even darker.
Ironically, former President Park Geun-hye’s biggest accomplishment was unifying the liberals with her failures. Now, some say that Moon’s achievement will be the mirror image: uniting the conservatives through the way he speaks —aloof, somewhat like a bystander. If a promise or pledge can get empathy and power, it should be supported by action. Appealing to public sentiment while being stubborn — regardless of what others say — does not work. In a monarchy, of course, it is accepted that the king does not do wrong. In a democracy, such an idea is ludicrous.
Richard Neustadt, a former professor at Columbia University and an authority on presidential studies — and a former aide to former U.S. President Harry Truman — concluded after long analysis that presidential power is persuasion. Persuasion begins from sincerity and communication and is based on self-sacrifice. In his inauguration speech, Moon said that his head was filled with blueprints to open a new world of integration and coexistence. 100 days after the Cho Kuk scandal, the Blue House is watching a divided country. And the administration is still based on “code.” Adhering to the people and method of his choice is not communication of integration and coexistence.
Gandhi’s motto was “my life is my message.” Roman emperors headed to battlefields not because they didn’t know about the risk. To change something, a leader spearheading a reform should bring a strong justification and then create a consensus. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography that no matter how smart and good-willed someone may be, the good deed doesn’t have power and only incurs antagonism if that person has an arrogant and self-righteous attitude.
Moon has passed the halfway point of his five-year term. He is asking for a fairer society. But a correct prescription can only come from an accurate diagnosis. Apologizing for his own responsibilities is the starting point.