By Kim Tong-hyung
How can Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo make their squeaking buddy act work before the clock strikes on Dec. 19 only adds another crazy episode to the reality show that is the Korean presidential race.
One moment Moon, the contestant from the Democratic United Party (DUP), and Ahn, a popular independent hopeful, are buttering each other up as ideal leaders for a new era of politics and leadership. The next they look like a couple with extreme insecurity issues, engaging in a catty battle of oh-no-you-didn't and say-you-truly-mean-you're-sorry, which has left their two-day talks about merging candidacies feeling more like two years.
Their opponent, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of late dictatorial President Park Chung-hee and contender of the conservative ruling Saenuri Party, seems giddy about the Moon-Ahn implosion but equally uneasy that it's stealing the spotlight from her. Her party continues to bombard reporters with comments and statements about the efforts to establish a liberal united front that are simply summarized as "tsk, tsk, tsk."
With just a little more than a month left until the polls, the picture is indeed cringe-worthy for Korean voters as they prepare to pick their next head of state.
But lost in the massive amount of ink and electrons spent to describe the verbal grenades thrown back and forth between the camps is the most important question of all: Can we find a leader with vision, intelligence and mental fortitude to navigate a fragile country facing a critical point in the course of its societal and economic history?
Regrettably, it's hard to say that any of the three candidates have inspired confidence on this.
Park, Moon and Ahn couldn't be more different in personality and the political backgrounds they are coming from. But they share an alarming ineptitude for offering credible plans for what they will be doing in the next five years. The paucity of specifics is glaring in their campaign promises, which look increasingly alike as campaign officials continue to act like cheating college kids peeking at each other's answer sheet.
Park touts herself as the flag-bearer of a new breed of conservative politics that better represents the interest of working class Koreans. Moon and Ahn introduce themselves as pioneers for centralist politics aimed at tackling inequality without hurting economic growth. We are talking crabs and crawfish here, as the old Korean saying goes.
All three are desperate to sell an absurd idea that voters can have it both ways — showered with welfare benefits, but exempted from taxes.
Park is always the quickest to pull out the "populism" card in attacking her rivals and speechifying against spiked spending on state welfare offerings, which she fears would bankrupt the government. This doesn't keep her from promising a bulked-up social safety net, free college education for the third child and over in families, and establishing a state "happiness" fund to absorb the debt of low-income earners.
Moon and Ahn also insist it will be possible for them to tax like a small government but spend like a big one.
Moon is pledging full state-financing for raising children under the age of five, expanding healthcare insurance coverage, halving the level of college tuition, and introducing a package of unspecified measures to create 3 million new jobs. For financing these policies, Moon claims he can create an extra 35 trillion won per year through rewriting welfare and fiscal policies and reducing the overlaps.
But he has been rather coy about discussing a dramatic reform in the tax system and one right-wing think tank believes the country's tax income will have to be raised by at least 24.5 trillion won a year to support Moon's ideas.
Perhaps, the most disappointing candidate on the tax front is Ahn. Announcing his presidential bid in September, Ahn owned a rare example of political honesty in calling for the need of a "universal" increase in income taxes to finance a needed upgrade in welfare levels.
This was not only critical for improving the living standards of the middle class and low-income earners but also to Korea's long-term growth outlook, Ahn claimed, as the inability to boost incomes more broadly is dangerous when the work population is aging in dog years.
Well, that was Ahn's last meaningful contribution to the discussions about taxes. In unveiling his plans for the economy and welfare earlier this month, Ahn promised free health insurance for the poorest 5 percent of households, but not much more to write home about.
As the three candidates are perfectly coordinated in the way they promise to make more promises and identically incapable inspiring new values, voters will be casting their ballots on memories rather imagination about how the country will look in the next five years. As a result, this election has become just as much about dead people as the living.
Park's most distinctive character is that she is the shaman of her own father, remembered equally for his bloody oppression of civilians and orchestration of aggressive, export-led industrialization strategies that produced a magnitude of changes that took a whole century for European economies.
Moon serves the ghost of former President Roh Moo-hyun, lionized by liberal voters after his tragic suicide in 2009, despite the shebang of neo-liberalist policies pursued during his government that is now blamed for widening inequality.
Ahn? Maybe he's Maitreya, the mysterious future Buddha mentioned in Buddhist lore who appears on Earth in different millennia to provide enlightenment in times of trouble. He certainly looks the part.