[Kim Myong-sik] Leadership crisis everywhere in pandemic-hit world
Published : Jul 13, 2022 - 17:23
Updated : Jul 13, 2022 - 17:23
Today, the Middle East no longer stands out amid what’s happening in the rest of the world.

In our nearest neighbor, a former prime minister was assassinated in broad daylight. A demagogue former president is ready to announce he is running in the next election as the incumbent sees his approval ratings drop to the lowest point ever in the US. A prime minister resigns after lying about rowdy parties during COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK. And a mentally and physically sick Russian president threatens further escalation of an unprovoked war against a sovereign state.

Here in the Republic of Korea, the approval rate for a new president has fallen to a humiliating 37 percent three months after he won the election by a margin of 0.73 percentage point. In the meantime, the head of the new ruling party has been forced out of his office over a sex bribery scandal that happened almost a decade ago.

Lee Jun-seok, the 37-year-old chairman of the People Power Party, for whom the internal ethics committee ordered a six-month suspension last week, is bringing the decision to the court seeking a reversal. Lee, who essentially represents the young power in a conservative party that had long been associated with the older generation, claims there is a conspiracy being conducted by the inner circle of President Yoon Suk-yeol to get rid of him.

Dispatches from Washington showed below 40 percent approval ratings for Joe Biden in early July, even lower than those recorded by Donald Trump at the same point of his presidency. Trump seems still undaunted by the ever more damaging revelations at congressional hearings on his involvement in the mob raid on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

In Tokyo, a family funeral was held on Tuesday for Shinzo Abe, who was fatally shot by a jobless loner while campaigning for an upper house election in the central Japanese city of Nara. The 67-year-old conservative leader was much less popular among Koreans than his K-pop loving wife, but the circumstances that allowed such a tragedy to happen in Japan, including social complacency and systemic vulnerability, are deplorable.

In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who a noted British scholar called “the most accomplished liar in public life,” resigned soon after he returned from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Madrid as a result of scandals including “partygate,” although he had recently survived a no-confidence motion. The NATO event to which South Korean President Yoon was invited produced little of what was expected of the first gathering of Western leaders since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine four months ago.

Many ascribed the unsatisfactory outcome to the absence of substantial leadership in the body that was created in 1949. Neither Olaf Scholz, who succeeded Angela Merkel last year as German chancellor, nor Emmanuel Macron, the reelected French president, have the personal aura needed to help create a consensus in the face of the most serious challenge to the validity of the fundamental security system of Europe.

Over here, South Koreans bid farewell to a president who had for the past five years tried hard to please -- or at least not offend -- the young dictator in the North while his communist regime spurred development of nuclear arms and delivery vehicles at the sacrifice of 25 million impoverished people. Hateful demonstrators are depriving former president Moon Jae-in of peace in retired life at his country home.

Our new president vowed to make efforts to achieve internal unity to deal effectively with the Northern threats on the strength of a dynamic economy 40-50 times bigger than the North in gross domestic product. Yet, he has so far shown no other methodology of pursuing peace with the North other than resolve to meet force with force.

The vibrant market economy here caused a conspicuous income gap among the people that has brewed complex social polarization to the left and right in recent decades. Different attitudes toward the North ranging from outright condemnation to fraternal sympathy painted diverse colors on the ideological spectrum in the South. Power swinging between the two poles looked like ideal democracy, but political energy has been wasted as politicians have tended to seek instant rewards and retaliation upon election victory.

Now, President Yoon is starting a new political cycle of erasing the past after, first of all, moving the presidential office from the majestic Cheong Wa Dae palace to a plain building in a former military compound. He declared an end to the leftist economic framework of “income-led growth,” which economists ridiculed as “the cart leading the horse.” Then he changed the national energy policy to increase dependence on nuclear power to 30 percent or higher. Regulations on real estate transactions are being revised in hopes to bring down apartment prices.

After replacing the entire general staff of the armed forces, the new commander in chief said that the uniformed community was now free to call North Korea “the main enemy,” shifting from the previous administration’s basic stand that the North was neither a friend nor an enemy. Prosecutors opened a probe into the military’s false intelligence report on an incident in 2020 in which North Korean guards killed and burned a South Korean fisheries official adrift in North Korean waters.

Presidential aides say these days that they do not care much about fluctuating approval ratings, which they predict will “stabilize” when the people understand the philosophy and behavioral style of the new leader. Some assert that the right-wing population generally has higher standards for approving national leadership compared to those of leftists, hence the lower figures for the time being.

We find some specific reasons for the new president losing points on his scorecard, which include the naming of some unqualified people for his first Cabinet, who eventually withdrew after harsh grilling by opposition members in National Assembly hearings. The presidential couple’s hiring of personal friends for miscellaneous help on their first overseas trip to Madrid was utterly inappropriate.

If people feel uneasy about the Yoon Suk-yeol presidency, it is because his previous career consisted mainly of wrestling with professional crooks and disgraced high-ranking officials. They must wonder if he still considers himself the crusader of justice wading through a sea of evils.

The presidential office these days may be able to take consolation from the fact that respectable and trustworthy leaders are a dwindling species worldwide. We wonder if it really is a blessing to have a president who loves “fairness and common sense” and just that. 

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.

By Chun Sung-woo (swchun@heraldcorp.com)