At a recent seminar with senior journalists in Seoul, a leading presidential contender of the Saenuri Party, Rep. Park Geun-hye, was asked to characterize the May 16 military coup d’etat of 1961, through which her late father took power. In her response, she defended the coup as ``inevitable and the best possible choice,’’ and further expressed that the event served as the cornerstone of what Korea has become today. She added that historians and the public would reinterpret the events of 1961 someday. Her remarks drew a barrage of criticism from many political opponents and pundits.
Nonetheless, aside from the legitimacy of the military coup, there is unanimous consensus on late President Park’s efforts and success in leading the country out of chronic poverty and economic underdevelopment. Likewise, other former presidents of the Republic of Korea, notwithstanding their respective political and social drawbacks, are remembered with their signature policies as follows.
Late President Park Chung-hee is remembered for laying the foundation of economic development, former President Chun Doo-hwan for the ``Miracle of the Han River’’ which ensured continued economic progress, former President Roh Tae-woo for his success in the ``Northern Policy’’ that had widened Korea’s diplomatic horizon over communist bloc nations, and late President Kim Dae-jung for his ``Sunshine Policy’’ on North Korea which was intended for sustaining stability on the Korean Peninsula.
At this point in time, I wonder what historians and the public would later remember incumbent President Lee Myung-bak. During his tenure, President Lee attracted and presided over two important international events in Korea; the G-20 Summit of 2010 and the Nuclear Security Summit of 2012. These large-scale summit meetings have helped enhance Korea’s standing in international arena.
Nonetheless, President Lee’s activities and statements are less covered these days by the Korean domestic media. Coverage on the words and activities of presidential contenders from both the ruling and opposition parties is occupying the front pages. Accomplishments of the incumbent President Lee are less debated or even mentioned. His term of office will be over in a few months. He, in fact, is a Lame Duck, the word defined in dictionaries as one whose position or term of office will soon end.
What is making matters worse for the President are the news reports of wrong-doings such as embezzlement and bribe-taking by his family including elder brother, several close assistants and subordinates. The negative news certainly compromises the leadership of President Lee. Regardless of his being a lame duck, the nation still expects President Lee to be the nation’s steersman.
The nation has been under constant threat and intimidation from North Korea. The export-driven economy is now haunted by the sluggish progress of the European Union, U.S. and China. President Lee is serving the final months of his term during which he should demonstrate his brilliant leadership for the successful conclusion of his pledges to the nation.
In 1990, I translated into Korean, ``Leadership Secretes of Attila the Hun,’’ published by Gimm Young Sa. I presented this book to then President Roh Tae-woo, for whom I served as press secretary and first director of press operations, ``Chun Chu Gwan,’’ from 1988 through 1992.
Former President Roh, from the second year of his term, was under serious criticism for his seemingly weak leadership. The nation was moving through a transition period from authoritative military rule to a less rigid and more liberal government. Street demonstrations were daily events in Seoul. The president and government leaders were seemingly indecisive and incompetent to deal with boiling political situation. President Roh Tae-woo was nick-named ``Mool Tae-woo’’ referring to a seemingly diluted power of the presidency. As his subordinate, I felt obliged to offer some suggestions and the translated version of ``Leadership Secretes of Attila the Hun’’ was a proper medium.
The following are some of the lessons from Attila: You have to want to be in charge; You, always, have to appear as the one in charge; Make others adapt to your customs and never condone a lack of morale; The most important thing is to make timely decisions.
Those suggestions would have been able to help President Lee swiftly and effectively handle the volatile domestic situation when tens of thousands of Koreans took to the streets of Seoul, holding candles and enchanting slogans against imports of mad cow meat. A few incidents of North Korean provocations including the sinking of the Korean Naval vessel, Cheonan, and the artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island, are examples of situations warranting the President’s decisive and resolute leadership. Someday, historians and the public will reinterpret his leadership.
The legacies and accomplishments that President Lee is leaving behind should be good historical precedents for many presidential contenders. The presidential election in Korea will be held on Dec. 19, 2012, and is now only four months away. The nation is yearning for someone who can inspire us all to live each day with purpose and joy, and leaders who are rational, future oriented and global minded. We need leaders that may not need to be reminded of Attila’s leadership secrets.
The writer is a chair professor of the Catholic University of Daegu. He previously headed the Foreign News Division of the Korea Overseas Information Service. His email address is email@example.com.