Real leadership lessons
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Cicero, a renowned statesman of ancient Rome, ran for consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic, at age 42 in 64 BC. It was not easy, because he was not a noble. His younger brother advised him to befriend various people, work hard to win support from the voters of all classes and change his attitude like a chameleon to please the people. He won an overwhelming victory.
The two frontrunners in the March 9 presidential election — Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and Yoon Suk-yeol from the opposition People Power Party (PPP) — have outdone each other in making reckless pledges to impress the people. They promised to create new rewards and increase payouts to the people. Both promised that a solider will receive 2 million won ($1,677) in monthly salary. Their pledges are unfeasible, soulless words. Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People’s Party (PP) appeared to be a rare kind as he opposes populism and promised to reform education, labor and pension systems. Lee said he needs more than 300 trillion won to implement his promises for the next five years and Yoon 266 trillion won, but no one believes them.
The two major parties are insulting opposing candidates by lodging personal attacks. Lee called Yoon a “shaman,” while Yoon called Lee an incarnation of Adolf Hitler. We do not see national strategies or vision from the candidates. The foreign press lamented the upcoming election as the worst-ever marred by scandals, mudslinging and insults.
Yet, appropriate is their acceptance of the accomplishments of former presidents for the sake of national unity. Lee paid respects at the graves of the late Presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee and promised to become a president of unity. Yoon vowed to end regionalism and realize the dream of the late President Kim Dae-jung. We hope they are not just acting like chameleons to win votes.
During the truce negotiation for the 1950-53 Korean War, Rhee had a difficult negotiation with the United States. He demanded from his U.S. counterpart, Dwight Eisenhower, that a bilateral mutual defense treaty be signed or that South Korea be given an opportunity to fight alone. He was targeting Washington’s lukewarm attitude to participate in the war, because some saw the war as a “reluctant crusade.” Eisenhower told Army Chief of Staff Paik Sun-yup that the United States acted along with Britain at a time of need.
Rhee, the leader of one of the world’s poorest countries, rejected the U.S. vision of foreign affairs and security until the last moment. In 1952, the United States devised a plan to overthrow the Rhee government. In 1953, it even drew up Plan EverReady to remove Rhee and establish a military regime in South Korea. But the final victor was Rhee. He confronted two U.S. presidents — Harry Truman and Eisenhower — and secured the Korea-U.S. alliance, protecting the security of the country.
During his presidency, Park Chung Hee had a showdown with his U.S. counterpart Jimmy Carter, who planned to withdraw the U.S. Forces Korea. When Carter visited the Blue House on June 30, 1979 to issue an ultimatum, Park read a statement of opposition for 45 minutes. Enraged, Carter gave a memo to his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, and Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, that if Park maintained his attitude, he would withdraw all U.S. forces from South Korea.
Ruling Democratic Party (DP) presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung, left, and his rival Yoon Suk-yeol from the opposition People Power Party (PPP). [YONHAP]
Eventually, Carter lost to Park. He gave up his withdrawal plan in return for the Park administration’s release of 87 political dissidents.
To prevent the North’s invasion of the South, Park pushed forward a nuclear weapons program despite U.S. obstructions. In September 1978, Park told Army Security Commander Kang Chang-sung that the country’s nuclear arms program was 95 percent complete and nuclear weapons would be produced starting the first half of 1981. For the sake of the country’s survival, Park did not hesitate to confront the ally, the United States. He was a true patriot.
The greatest accomplishment of President Kim Dae-jung was saving the country from the Asian financial crisis. His vision as a pioneer shone when Park was negotiating normalization of relations with Japan in 1964. While the entire country opposed the initiative, Kim said, “If the negotiation plan guarantees mutual interests, the opposition party must not oppose it.”
Kim was criticized for having colluded with the Park regime, but he remained a realist. In 1998, over 70 percent of the people opposed the opening of the Korean market to Japanese cultural products, but he pushed it forward. He was a political giant respected by Japan’s Prime Ministers Keizo Obuchi and Junichiro Koizumi as well as U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Kim forgave Park, who oppressed him and even attempted to assassinate him, and started a project to build a memorial for Park. Kim led efforts to arrange a pardon for former President Chun Doo Hwan, who abused power to hand down a death penalty to him, and treated Chun with respect. Kim accepted the accomplishments of Park’s industrialization and succeeded in turning Korea into an IT powerhouse. Park built the Gyeongbu Expressway and Kim built the information highway by wiring the country with high-speed networks. Kim reconciled with his political enemies.
Last year, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) elevated Korea’ status to a developed economy from a developing one. The late Presidents Rhee, Park and Kim should be credited for the accomplishment, as well as the people of the country. With this power, we succeeded in democratization. While the world sees the achievement, we have undervalued it here at home.
It was presidential for candidates Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Suk-yeol to praise the three political giants and their accomplishments. If their actions and word were genuine, the psychological civil war of the country will end. It can be a source of true leadership, going beyond populism, for a new, inexperienced president who will have to tackle difficult challenges at home and abroad. This kind of presidential attitude is a real step forward.