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[Kim Myong-sik] ‘Please all, and you will please none’

Nowadays, Aesop’s Fables are quoted not as frequently as in the past, perhaps because things taking place in reality are more fabulous than the episodes illustrated by the ancient wise man who once was a slave. But some recent acts of politicians, especially those of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and President Moon Jae-in, keep summoning the Greek sage’s particular tale of “The Man, the Boy and the Donkey” to my frustrated brain.

A man and his son were going with their donkey to the market. As they were walking along, a countryman passed them and said, “You fools, what is a donkey for but to ride upon?”

So the man put the boy on the donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said, “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”

So the man ordered his boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other, “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”

The man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his boy up before him on the donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by jeered at them for overloading that poor donkey.

The man and boy cut down a pole, tied the donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey onto their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them until they came to the market bridge, when the donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle, the donkey fell over the bridge and, his forefeet being tied together, he drowned.

“That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them. “Please all, and you will please none.” (Taken from the Harvard Classics)

Earlier this month, Seoul City Hall announced two major urban renovation projects: one to reshape the whole area of Gwanghwamun between the old gate and the public square, the other for the revitalization of the Euljiro section. People in the capital city and outside had no difficulty in guessing what Mayor Park was ultimately aiming at, spending nearly $100 million for the Gwanghwamun part alone.

The Gwanghwamun project is scheduled to be completed by spring 2021, about a year before the next presidential election. It was natural that Kim Boo-kyum, minister of the interior and safety and considered a likely contender in the next presidential race, instantly raised objections to the project conceived by his potential rival.

Kim’s ministry, which is responsible for the management of government properties, would not let Seoul City freely dispose of the facilities of the present Integrated Government Office located in the western side of the boulevard. The other point of objection is the planned removal of the statues of King Sejong the Great and Adm. Yi Sun-shin from the center of the Gwanghwamun Square to a corner of the street.

As tens of thousands of internet users lashed out at whoever contemplated the “mistreatment” of the most revered historical figures, Mayor Park, fearing a blemish forming for his presidential ambitions, quickly withdrew that part of the plan. He declared the city administration would faithfully follow the choice of the people, which should be confirmed through an appropriate process of public debates.

The leftist mayor’s populist behavior was best displayed when he also expressed willingness to revise the Euljiro project just a few days after its announcement. The gentrification of the central section in the Gangbuk area caused a small stir as it involved some popular restaurants that catered to small-time businesspeople running the numerous tools and building materials shops for many decades.

Media outlets conveyed complaints from the old clientele who would now miss the cold noodles, intestine soup and grilled ribs of those shabby but comfortable eateries in back alleys. Nostalgic comments in newspapers about the historical and cultural values of Ulji Myeonok, Yangmiok and Joseonok moved the all-sensitive mayor, who now vouched that they would remain at their present locations.

This means that the Euljiro plans would have to be extensively redrawn. The zigzagging of City Hall has confused residents and shop owners, who are now divided into two groups. The majority side seems to favor relocating those famous restaurants with appropriate compensation, arguing they could still retain their unique flavors even if they reopened with new exteriors and interiors as long as they used the same old cooking facilities, recipes and skills.

Mayor Park is trapped in his own policy modifications. He now has to deal laboriously with the minister of interior and safety and with the people of Euljiro who have waited a long time for their turn while other parts of the capital have been transformed into blocks of high-rise offices and shopping malls. The Gwanghwamun project invited criticism primarily for the wastefulness of demolishing the very center of Seoul only 10 years after its present form took shape.

Most appalling is the mayor’s remark that the new Gwanghwamun Square that is conceived to be four times wider than the present area would continue to serve as the “main democratic forum” in the capital. This means that its use in all kinds of demonstrations would be encouraged after the planned reconstruction.

Aesop in 6th century BC Greece must have been so annoyed by populist politicians that he was compelled to tell the story of the man, the boy and the donkey. While Park Won-soon is racking his brain in the curvy, bluish fiberglass City Hall office on how to please all, his ally Moon Jae-in in the Blue House is doing his part to make everyone happy with as many handout programs as possible.

For these and other leftist leaders in power, all ears are directed to the voices of the Minjunochong union, Jeongyojo teachers and others who are out in the streets with red headbands and vests punching the air with clenched fists -- just as Aesop’s man followed the whims of the countrymen and women he encountered on the way to market, not knowing the fate to befall his donkey. 

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at -- Ed.