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[Kim Seong-kon] Drivers of a bus named Korea

Feb. 26, 2019 - 17:06 By Kim Kyung-ho
Koreans often enjoy mocking their ex-presidents by parodying their governing styles and characteristics. Recently on the internet, I came across a funny poster featuring photos of our ex-presidents with brief descriptions that metaphorically compared their leadership to driving. The metaphor seems appropriate because the leader of a nation is like the driver of a bus or the captain of a ship, both of which could be a microcosm of a country.

On the poster, our first President Syngman Rhee was identified as a student driver because he was inexperienced and initially needed the US to sit on the passenger side like a driving instructor. The second president, Yun Bo-sun, who was ousted by a military coup immediately after his inauguration, was depicted as a driver with a temporary driver’s license. Then, Park Chung-hee, who seized power through a military coup and ruled the country with an iron fist, but accomplished economic success, was given the title of a skillful, but tyrannical driver. Choi Kyu-ha, who briefly took office after the assassination of Park, was called a substitute driver.

Meanwhile, Chun Doo-hwan, who took power from Choi through another military coup, was described as a reckless driver, probably due to his ruthless governing style that threatened or hurt many innocent people. Chun’s successor, Roh Tae-woo, was called a drowsy driver, perhaps because of his loose, nonmacho style. The first civilian president, Kim Young-sam, earned the title of a drunk driver, presumably due to his unpredictable, wayward style. His successor, Kim Dae-jung, was depicted as a driver who drove in the wrong direction on a one-way street. The poster described Roh Moo-hyun as a hit-and-run driver, Lee Myung-bak as a speeding driver, and Park Geun-hye, who was impeached, as a driver whose license was revoked.

Although such oversimplified, fault-finding descriptions of our former presidents are vastly exaggerated for a laugh, we can find some truth in them. At the same time, the poster provides us with a look at our recent history by humorously showing us what went wrong with our presidents and how they put us in danger due to their “clumsy driving and dubious driver’s licenses,” despite their positive accomplishments. The poster implies that due to the lack of driving skills of our ex-presidents, Korea’s recent history has been turbulent.

We are now watching our current president drive the bus named Korea amid heavy traffic congestion and treacherous road conditions.

Experts point out that South Korea is confronting unprecedented international crises, hopelessly caught in the crossfire between America, China, Japan and North Korea. Under the circumstances, sometimes the bus has to run on a bumpy road and other times, even run the gauntlet in the dark. Therefore we hope that our driver is skillful and reliable enough to drive the bus in the right direction safe and sound.

Foreigners who care about Korea are also anxiously watching us these days. Recently, a foreign intellectual wrote, “In the past, my thought was: Who is behind the steering wheel in Korea, who is driving that big bus?” He continued, “Today, I suspiciously think the wheel has been removed from its place, has been misplaced, or maybe did not exist at all. The irony is the bus is still driving along, and anything amiss has gone unnoticed by its passengers and citizens. If, unfortunately, my hunch is correct, then the nation is in a grave situation.”

Surely, it is unnerving that foreigners perceive the current situation of Korea as a gravely precarious one and that we do not even realize we are in such a grave situation. The problem is that no matter how dexterous the driver is, there is nothing much he can do if the steering wheel is misplaced or missing. For our safety, we need to restore the wheel as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, our politicians do not seem to be aware of the situation and instead only busy themselves with power struggles and political vendettas. As former National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyung-o aptly pointed out in a recent interview, we should spend time and energy on straightening out the flawed systems of the past, not on punishing people who worked in the previous government. The same goes for the tragedy of the Sewol ferry. Instead of using the tragic incident for political gain, we should implement strict rules and regulations to prevent similar incidents from happening.

We should keep foreigners’ warnings in mind and do our best to prove that our bus is running safely. We hope our driver is dependable and trustworthy, as our lives depend on his driving skill. We hope he is a professional to whom the safety of his passengers is always a priority. We also hope he is capable of driving the bus skillfully even on dangerously bent, slippery roads.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at -- Ed.