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[Robert J. Fouser] Reform agenda for next president

On Aug. 9, 1974, Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as president of the United States after Richard Nixon resigned amid the threat of certain impeachment.

In brief remarks Ford said, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

In its verdict on the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, the Constitutional Court echoed Ford’s words and ruled that Park had failed to uphold the Constitution, reflecting the will of the people.

Removing her from office was necessary to reassert that the people, not men and women, rule in South Korea.

Just as Nixon’s resignation was the first in US history, Park’s impeachment is the first in Korean history. Both situations stirred political passion and tension, but in the end, the overwhelming majority favored the decision and began looking to the future.

Nixon’s resignation marked the end of the “imperial presidency” and Park’s impeachment will no doubt do the same for Korea.

History has taken Nixon’s resignation as a moment that invigorated American democracy and it will most likely take the same view of Park’s impeachment.

The major difference between the US in August 1974 and Korea in March 2017 is that Ford assumed the presidency immediately, whereas Korea will have a presidential election within 60 days. This means some of the passions stirred up by the impeachment will remain, but it also gives people a chance to choose a new president who can address the nation’s pressing problems.

What are those problems and how should the new president address them? The first is to strengthen democracy. The impeachment of Park Geun-hye has tested the strength of Korea’s democracy, but more needs to be done to rebuild trust in the government and to ensure that future leaders uphold the Constitution.

The first step toward rebuilding trust is greater transparency in decision making and consistency in the execution of official duties. A sense of secrecy hung over former President Park’s administration, which slowly eroded public trust, exploding in support for her impeachment at the end of last year.

Transparency should bring clarity in dealing with national security issues. A democracy needs to be tolerant of a wide range of political views from the right-wing to left-wing. Political views critical of the existing state and political paradigm are not a threat to national security, but actions to undermine the state and overthrow it violently most certainly are. Security agencies should focus only on direct, tangible threats to the state, the greatest of which come from North Korea, not domestic left-wing groups. Black lists and Red Scares must come to an end.

The new president will also have to deal with economic issues. Economic growth in Korea is slowing and the population is aging, creating negative economic conditions for younger generations. Korea is also facing increased economic competition from China and other economies.

The next president needs to develop policies that would put Korea on the leading edge of robotics, artificial intelligence and other types of new technology that offer the promise of economic growth even as the working population declines. This will help the nation become “Dynamic Korea” once again. Increased growth would help the country support the needs of a growing population of senior citizens.

More action is also needed on the environment. Air quality is bad in much of the nation and it is easy to blame China, but much of the pollution is domestic. A push to develop new technology would also help Korea develop more renewable energy on a larger scale with a positive impact on the environment. The rapid push for economic development has left Korean cities with few green spaces, which are essential to high-quality urban life.

Finally, there is foreign policy. The next president will take office as long-standing post-World War II institutions are coming under attack from populist movements. These institutions are large and have very deep roots, whereas the populists that attack them are less stable. To guide Korea in these uncertain times, the next president should assert “Korea First” with a focus on peace and prosperity.

In his speech, Ford also said, “In all my public and private acts as your president, I expect to follow my instincts of openness and candor with full confidence that honesty is always the best policy in the end.” These words are wise advice for the next president of Korea.


By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.