What We Should Be Grateful For
By Lee Chang-kook
With the election of a new president the sounds and furors of the presidential campaign have been buried in the loud thrill of the victors and in the silent agony of the losers, and with the rise of the New Year's sun, people are slowly waking up from the intoxication of politics to the sobriety of everyday life.
Like the enthusiastic cheerers for their home team, having spent all their passions, they are all gone home and having some good rest. Yes, it was a good game to watch; not Armageddon, nor Apocalypse, nor the end of the world, as some feared and worried.
As a result of the big game there has emerged a victor, Lee Myung-bak, who is going to steer our country for the next five years as president. As president-elect he seems not only very happy with his success but also very confident of his success as president. He is promising better economy, more jobs, higher income for everyone ― in short, a better country in which all of us will be happier than ever. Although we have heard the similar promises before from his predecessors and have been disappointed each time, we are ready to willingly suspend our disbelief again with high hopes and great expectations.
What characterizes Lee as president is, unlike his predecessors, his brilliant and successful career as CEO of Hyundai, one of the largest business groups in our country. He attained the top position in the group from the bottom at super-high speed through his sheer effort, diligence and business acuteness. He earned absolute trust from his boss through absolute devotion to his work, creating a modern myth of success in the world of business in Korea.
With his big money and successful business career he entered politics and proved his administrative ability as mayor of Seoul City. He restructured the old and inefficient traffic system for the better and restored the Cheonggyecheon Stream that runs through the city to its former pristine condition against enormous odds, disbelief and suspicion. His success in the public administrative job as mayor and his career as a successful businessman persuaded people to believe he would lead our nation better than anybody else and elected him president despite various financial scandals alleged to him.
The belief that a very successful CEO will make a better president can be as naive and erroneous as the one that a philosopher-king will make his people more philosophical, or a professor of economy at the university will make his country economically more prosperous, or the lawyer turned politician will produce a more law-abiding and clean society. We enjoyed economic prosperity under the presidents who were ex-army generals. And, have we not seen lifelong freedom fighters failed resoundingly as a democratic president in our history?
Successful CEO is one thing, and successful president is another. Look at the Great Canal Project president-elect has ambitiously proposed as one of his election campaign pledges, his English education plan, and reduction in the government size, for examples. Each of them is facing unexpected strong oppositions and criticisms from the start even before its implementation. What lies ahead of Lee as president is certainly a field of mines unknown to and unexpected by him, like the burning of South Gate or the down-plunge in the stock market. All the problems and ills that had made all his predecessors so unpopular and so impotent, will not disappear with the mere advent of a CEO president.
However able and ambitious he may be, a president in a democratic country is not and cannot be a magician or a miracle-worker. To be more pessimistic, there is nothing much he can do about the pressing problems confronting the nation simply because of the limited time (five years are a very short period, and I am glad that president-elect is said to be well aware of it) and resources, and ever-unchanging greedy human nature. Good words and sweet promises are easy to make but hard to realize, especially in democracy where law and individual freedom come before the will of a leader.
The qualities and elements that make a good and successful president in democracy are as elusive and unpredictable as those that enable an artist to produce a fine work of art. Good ideas and intentions are not enough. Possession of some specific knowledge and experience could somehow be of much help for making a better president, but true leadership requires much more than that. It requires even something of the impossible; not only a sense of what is workable and what is not, courage, etc., but also, more than anything else, good luck.
The true meaning of and celebration for the election of Mr. Lee Myung-bak as president should be found not so much in his words or in his CEO ability as in the fact that we have solidified and confirmed once more the fragile tradition of the peaceful transfer of power in our country. Under Lee's government the noisy world will not be much different from what it was, and the greedy people will mostly remain the same as before, but as long as we live in the firm belief and trust that we can have a new face in the Blue House every five years, we can at least endure even the worst president, and wait with high hopes and great expectations for the better.
And, look what we have achieved hitherto slowly but steadily! We are all living under the rule of law, and with the democratic right to replace our ruler. The media are free. Human rights are respected. We can travel where we want, say and write what we wish, watch what we like and we are permitted to have a lawyer at hand to defend us when in trouble. We are one of the richest, best-educated, best-defended people in the world. These are, although not perfect and leave a lot to be desired, what we should be proud of and grateful for.
Lee Chang-kook is a professor emeritus at Chung-Ang University. He can be reached at email@example.com.