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[Kim Seong-kon] Waiting for a new leader of South Korea

Oct. 27, 2021 - 05:31 By Kim Seong-kon
In March 2022, South Korea will hold its next presidential election.

All Koreans are anxiously awaiting the important day when they will have a new leader. Indeed, there is a compelling reason why the Korean people are eager to have an extraordinarily competent leader as their new president. South Korea is now facing an unprecedented series of economic, diplomatic and national security crises on the heels of the ongoing pandemic, intensifying US-China conflicts and the resumption of North Korea’s nuclear armament.

What kind of a person, then, will be the ideal leader of South Korea in the future?

One of the most important qualities of the new president should be having a global mindset and an international vision, because “diversification and globalization are the keys to the future,” as Fujio Mitarai said. A leader who is stuck on uniformity and homogeneity and whose vision is parochial and myopic will surely endanger the nation and make its future grim and bleak. An ideal leader will be open-minded, ready to learn other cultures and embrace differences. It would be even better if his English were good enough to socialize with other nations’ leaders without needing an interpreter at the summit meetings.

The new leader should also be a reliable captain even in a perfect storm, who is trustworthy in the vortex of international crises. He should not steer the ship toward the uncharted rough sea that might capsize it. The new president should be an excellent driver as well. He should be a gentle but skillful driver who would make his passengers comfortable even on the rough, bumpy road. He should not make an illegal left turn or drive the opposite way down a one-way street, endangering the lives of his passengers. He should not bring his passengers to a cul-de-sac, either. In addition, he should not be a reckless or speedy driver.

The new leader should be ideology-free, bias-free and revenge-free. If he is obsessed with his own political ideology, extreme prejudice or having a political vendetta, he will surely make the people miserable. The new president should be humble, not stubbornly self-righteous. If he thinks that he is always right and all others are wrong, he is likely to end up being a tyrant despite his initial intention. An idealistic leader should be flexible and know that there is no such thing as “the one and only” way to solve complex problems. If he is full of grudges and revengeful, he will throw his political enemies to prison. Then, the evil cycle of political vendettas will never cease in South Korea.

The new leader of South Korea should be an adroit diplomat who not only skillfully navigates between the Scylla and Charybdis of more powerful nations, but also boldly practices the “carrot and stick” approach to bullying foreign leaders. South Korea cannot survive in the perilous international sea if she is subservient to hostile nations or breaks her alliance with friendly ones. Skillful diplomacy does not mean taking an opportunistic approach to conflicts between nations, which will only cause our country to lose respect in the international community.

It is imperative that the new president recruits and appoints experts and professionals for his Cabinet and other governmental positions, not simply his amateurish disciples. When I attended the government meetings during the Lee Myung-bak administration, I found so many Korea University-related people. During the Park Geun-hye administration, I saw so many people from her election camp. These days, “camcorder” appointments are rampant: that is, the only eligible applicants are those from the presidential election “camp” or those who have the same ideological “code” or “cord.”

The new leader should not divide the people by instigating ideological warfare between the conservatives and the progressives, between the rich and the poor, and between property owners and tenants. Instead, he should unite the people under the banner of unity and unanimity. Moreover, the new leader should treat the people, whether rich or poor, with respect and affection, not with contempt and hate. In addition, he should assume responsibility and apologize for his misguided policies, if occurred.

The new leader should realize that Samsung has significantly upgraded the image of Korea overseas and thus be grateful to it. A few days ago, my wife and I visited a local Verizon store to upgrade our Samsung Galaxy phones. Looking at my wife’s name, the salesperson asked, “Where is this name from?” We replied, “South Korea.” Then, the salesperson said, brightly smiling, “Oh, the country of Samsung!” Many foreigners admire South Korea thanks to Samsung.

The new president should refrain from populism that will ruin and bankrupt the nation eventually. A good leader would never rely on populist policies. Besides, populism can easily turn into mob democracy. The new leader should also be future-oriented, not past-oriented. He should have a vision for the future of Korea, not hold grudges about the past.

Then, the question arises: “Do we have a candidate who meets the above qualifications?” Surely, that is the problem.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.