In giants’ footsteps

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In giants’ footsteps

Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the editor-in-chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.


Korea and Germany are similar in many ways. Korea experienced a civil war while Germany experienced two world wars. Both countries overcame difficulties as divided countries. Germany, a state that once tried to destroy Europe, is now a powerful leader of the European Union. Korea, which grew from one of the poorest countries to an advanced economy, is a role model for developing nations. The key to both countries successes were political leaders who utilized the unlimited energies of the two countries’ peoples.

Since World War II, Germany’s chancellors demonstrated visions and beliefs accommodating the Zeitgeist of the times and their great leadership was respected by the German people. Korea also had great leaders. Founding President Syngman Rhee was the president who founded the Republic of Korea and established the Korea-U.S. alliance amid the chaos of confrontation between the left and the right. President Park Chung Hee rebuilt the economy and created the Miracle on the Han River. Roh Tae-woo opened Korea diplomatically with his Northern policy and brought an era of inter-Korean reconciliation. Kim Young-sam risked his life to fight military dictators for democratization, cleaned up the banking system and ended the abuse of power by a military fraternity called Hanahoe. Kim Dae-jung save the country’s economy from the Asian economic crisis and held the historic inter-Korean summit.

None could avoid the challenges of their times. They were realists with feet firmly on the ground. They were able to make unprecedented decisions that go beyond their times. They were leaders who used all efforts to resolve difficult tasks and opened new eras.

Successors Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak had some great accomplishments. And yet Roh, Lee and Park Geun-hye as well as the current President Moon Jae-in failed to have any insight on the presidency as a symbol of national unity. When they resolved one problem, they created more conflicts. As if the conflict between the conservatives and the liberals was not enough, anachronistic conflicts between pro-Lee and pro-Park factions, pro-Roh and anti-Roh factions and pro-Moon and anti-Moon factions became a part of our everyday lives. It is a tragic consequence because presidents abandoned the attitude of communication and reconciliation in order to punish his or her political foes.

A fall after a presidential term is a kind of tragic karma. Roh committed suicide while being investigated. Lee and Park were both imprisoned. Moon, even after he took office, feels like he’s in a besieged fortress. The politics of hatred and division, sugarcoated as a campaign against so-called past evils, will haunt Moon after his presidential term ends. If Moon were able to communicate and unite with his political enemies, Korea would have become a Germany of East Asia: the world’s 10th economic power, 5th technological power and 6th military power.

The capabilities, ethics, words and behavior of Lee Jae-myung, presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and his rival Yoon Seok-youl of the opposition People Power Party (PPP) fail to meet the people’s standards ahead of the March 9 election. The people dislike them more than like them. Although the pendulum should swing to an opposition candidate, Yoon is struggling. In the meantime, Lee is trying to position himself as being different from the current administration, but voters are skeptical.

Yoon is facing a serious crisis. Former President Park, whom he had investigated and detained, has been pardoned. Yoon is also repeatedly making slips of the tongue. His wife’s resume falsifications to get jobs and into colleges and his mother-in-law’s suspected corruption as well as his lukewarm apology put a serious dent in the entire reason for his running for president, which is supposed to be to promote fairness. As his supporters were shaken, his wife finally offered an apology. His campaign committee is still facing an internal battle, and some even say he will give up the candidacy.

Lee is also facing a crisis. Key figures in the Daejang-dong development corruption scandal committed suicide one after another as if it were a horror movie. Although Lee had gone on an overseas trip with one of them — a key figure behind the scandal — Lee insisted that he did not know him. That does not make sense. Lee’s son’s suspected gambling and sex trafficking are also a burden for him. Lee changes his policies and pledges at the drop of a hat. He says he is flexible, but he is actually facing criticism that he is a populist without any sincerity.

Instead of planning for the country’s future, both candidates are putting efforts into attacking each other. If this continues, we will have the worst-ever president whose vision and convictions are entirely unclear. We can never advance when we are divided. Lee and Yoon must listen to the voices of their conscience and the demands of history. Only then, can they listen to the wisdom of one another and work together while being engaged in a competition.

Germany’s unification was the outcome of bipartisan cooperation. Ostpolitik or the new eastern policy of Willy Brandt — the first chancellor from the Social Democratic Party — was followed by Helmut Kohl of the Christian Democratic Party to accomplish German unification. Gerhard Schröder, a center-leftist, started labor and social reforms despite losing supporters and elections. Angela Merkel, a conservative, continued the reforms and completed them.

In her inauguration speech in 2005, Merkel expressed her appreciation to Schröder for allowing Germany to open the door to a new era. With a coalition between the left and the right, Germany became the growth engine of Europe. Merkel, who retired early this month, had an approval rate of 80 percent and the people are already missing her. It is completely different from the situation in Korea, where the president has become the largest risk for the country.

After the political giants were gone, small-minded politicians in Korea attacked one another and the country started walking on a path of division. Lee and Yoon should be different from them. They must declare a cease-fire now. To save the ship of Korea from sinking, they must become giants and embody national unity and reconciliation.
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