They might not be giants
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
More than 20 contestants are at the starting line for a race to the presidential election on March 9, 2012. The contest is a unique celebration of a democracy and its power to breathe fresh life into a society. The preliminary league has been disappointing. The rivalling frontrunners — Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung and former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl — and others fail to show strength to tower over sitting president Moon Jae-in. The two frontrunners scored poorly in their test on respective scandals involving an actress and his wife and mother-in-law, respectively.
“Should I let down my pants again?” said Gov. Lee in a parody of a past remark by a veteran singer about his sex scandal, vulgarizing the primary debate. When his mother-in-law got sentenced to three years for fraud for illegally pocketing state medical subsidies, former chief prosecutor Yoon stoically said, “Everyone is subject to fair investigation and trial according to the law and principle.” Other contenders also fail to present a positive impression. At this pace, the race could turn into a mediocre event. Perhaps we could witness an absurd play featuring a tragic doom of an unprepared president.
There had been strongmen among earlier presidents. Syngman Rhee, Park Chung Hee and Kim Dae-jung each had been condemned to death. Rhee, a republican from a falling dynasty, was accused of treason, General Park for joining in a rebellion against the Rhee regime, and dissident Kim Dae-jung was on death row on charges of conspiracy and sedition by the Chun Doo Hwan military regime. In his memoir, Kim wrote how he had shaken at the sound of footsteps outside. Another dissident-turned-president Kim Young-sam stood up against the Chun regime with a 23-day hunger strike. They had not wavered against brutal challenges. Rhee founded South Korea, Park achieved industrialization, and the two Kims helped democratize the nation with the support of the people.
President Roh Tae-woo also came from the military, but he set aside his hostility towards Communism and normalized diplomatic relationships with China and the Soviet Union. He signed the 1991 Inter-Korean Basic Treaty and drew a bipartisan unification proposal. Roh broadened the frontiers by overcoming the conservative mindset during the Cold War era. The five presidents all had follies, but their achievements were greater still.
Since the two-Kims era, South Korea could not produce a president befitting the larger economic power and maturing level of its citizenship. Unprepared yet mighty presidents often foundered in addressing domestic and external challenges, hardening the lives of the people. We cannot expect a savior on a white horse.
Without the best, voters will have to make do with lesser choices. Candidates must honestly bare their true character and political skills. The leading duo — Lee and Yoon — must inevitably face the toughest test. When asked thorny questions, they must not be evasive.
But none of the contestants has come up with a clear vision about a country they want to build. Asked about how to tame the overheated real estate market, prime ministers-turned contestants Lee Nak-yon and Chung Sye-kyun vowed stronger regulations. Gyeonggi Gov. Lee said, “All the answers lie in what the president had said.” They all lack the courage and conviction to confront Moon. Semiconductor companies like Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix are the country’s last resort on the economic and security fronts. But none of the presidential candidates promises radical deregulation to help them effectively compete against their U.S., Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese rivals. All the candidates merely wish to please their traditional base.
The opposition front is no exception. Except repeating anti-Moon chants, its presidential hopefuls have not manifested an alternative path. Even if they wish to do away with the policy flops of the Moon government, none of them speak about succeeding the work to establish a lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula. Park Chung Hee had announced the July 4 South-North Joint Statement for sovereignty, peaceful unification and national union with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Roh Tae-woo was ahead of liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Moon in improving inter-Korean relationship. Yet the conservative contemporaries have forgotten the legacy. Lacking any rigorous thought about the nation’s problems, they merely hope for a windfall in the next presidential election.
There cannot be a promising future in this way. The ruling and opposition camps, the left and the right, must build a cooperative model together during the presidential race. When Park Chung Hee faced a backlash for trying to normalize diplomatic ties with Japan in 1962, then-opposition leader Kim Dae-jung publicly approved of the idea. He argued the country needed to capitalize on Japan’s economic ascension.
If the conservatives overcome their “red, or Communist” complex and take the initiative to improve ties with North Korea, the nation can become more united. Can we expect a candidate with such flexible and engaging approaches? If there is one, we may finally meet a hero who puts an end to the era of division.