[Park Sang-seek] What kind of president does Korea need?

By Lee Hyun-joo
  • Published : Mar 19, 2017 - 15:50
  • Updated : Mar 19, 2017 - 15:51

When I was a student at Amherst College, I had a chance to see President John F. Kennedy on the college campus on Oct. 26, 1963. He came to our college to participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library and deliver his famous “power and poetry” speech. Less than a month later, he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

I was so excited to see him personally and so impressed by his speech and behavior. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred just a year before. He looked so young and behaved so humbly that I could not believe how he could become the president of the most powerful nation on earth and handle successfully the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most serious international crisis in the entire cold war period.

After the groundbreaking ceremony all the participants moved to the auditorium and the president and other dignitaries went up to the podium. At the podium the president waited, standing, and helped Archibald MacLeish, the librarian of the US congress, sit. In his speech he said that “Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. ... When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

Since I returned to Korea in 1979, I have lived under eight different presidents. Since then I have been thinking about what kind of president Korea needs. My deep impression of Kennedy has profoundly influenced my ideal type of Korean president.

First, Korea needs a president who has no class consciousness and thinks and behaves like a common person. The common person means a person who does not behave like a privileged person or the member of a royal family.

The president enjoys special privileges under the Constitution, but these privileges are given to the institution of the president, not the person of the president. Therefore, these privileges can be used only for the exercise of presidential authorities, never for personal purposes.

In Korea, however, once a person becomes the president, it is not easy for him or her to live like a commoner, mainly because the traditional Korean political culture is still prevalent in Korea. Ordinary people desire to see a president who lives and behaves like themselves.

But once they see or meet the president, they instinctively and unconsciously think of him of her like a king or queen under the old Korean kingdoms.

The main characteristic of traditional Korean culture is authoritarianism. Korean culture is one of the strongest authoritarian cultures in the world and has penetrated into every aspect of Korean society.

This is reflected in the Korean language structure: it has five honorific expressions. When a person speaks to different persons, he or she has to use different expressions according to the age and social status.

Korea is highly modernized and Westernized compared to other non-Western countries, but its people’s traditional behavioral patterns remain strong. The political community has actually benefitted from this authoritarian culture. The government and party organizations are extremely hierarchical and the subordinates are required to follow orders from superiors unconditionally. Under such a political culture it is not surprising that the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye has happened in Korea.

Once a political leader seizes power, he or she becomes the most important person in the country and can be easily lured into the abuse of power. This is what Kennedy was talking about in his speech cited the above. In Korea both power and democracy corrupt.

Second, Korea needs a president with a long-range vision.

A person with a long-range vision is the person who has a firm commitment and plan to transform Korea into a modern and civilized nation. The previous two presidents established the organizations for the construction of a modern and civilized nation (the Committee of Social Unification under the Lee government and the People’s Movement for a New Korea under the Park government) but failed to achieve tangible results. The main causes for the failure of both movements were that they were financed and led by the government to achieve their goals within their respective terms of presidency.

Such short-term and government-led movements participated in by only scholars and experts are bound to fail. From now on, the president should establish economic, social, cultural and educational development plans that may not be realized but can be firmly grounded during his or her term.

Most presidents in the past have put up all kinds of national development plans to show off their leadership abilities. For such a purpose, they have changed the names of various ministries. Korea does not need a president with such showmanship. A president with long-range vision will consider personnel management as the key to success in every endeavor and avoid the spoils system by all means.

A newly elected president is under strong pressure from his or her party personnel and others to distribute the spoils of victory. Aside from political appointees, personnel at all levels of government and other public organizations should be appointed according to a strict merit system.

Third, the president should have a strong sense of justice. Koreans suffering from the anomie caused by rapid Westernization and modernization strongly demand justice in all aspects of life. Their definition of justice is simple: a fair distribution of goods and services.

Sometimes, justice is indistinguishable from equality. They don’t know or don’t care whether fairness is the same as equality. Most people don’t know or don’t care about the fact that capitalism does not guarantee economic equality.

Under the circumstances, the president must understand this kind of popular milieu correctly and carefully balance economic development and distribution of wealth. Scholars agree that democracy works best under a moderate government control of economic affairs.

I hope and believe that the Korean people support the type of president I have described above. 

By Park Sang-seek

Park Sang-seek is a former rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe.” -- Ed