South Korea’s political leaders are neither too old nor too young. Out of some 18 people so far mentioned in the media as presidential aspirants, 10 are in their 60s, seven are in the 50s and the oldest, Sohn Hak-kyu of the Bareunmirae Party, is 71. Lee Hae-chan of the ruling Democratic Party, not a serious contender, is 67 years old.
Sorry to say this, but the news of Sanna Marin, 34, being installed as the new prime minister of Finland made the power contestants here, who are almost twice her age, suddenly look senile. And even before here there was French President Emmanuel Macron, who will turn 42 this week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who will be 48 years old next week, and Sebastian Kurz, 33, who is to take Australian chancellorship when he completes forming a coalition government soon. Jacinda Ardern was 37 when she became the prime minister of New Zealand in 2017.
While East Asian politics retains its seniority-controlled, hierarchy-ruled culture with Xi Jinping, 66, Shinzo Abe, 65, and even Mahathir Mohamad, 94, in power, Western Europe and other countries in the democratic league have prepared for political and social stages for young leaders who can meet internal and global challenges in more creative and courageous ways. The European Union’s current national leaders have a median age of 52, and they include eight who are under 45. The other day, we saw a picture of Sanna Marin standing with three female members of her coalition Cabinet who all are in their 30s.
Leadership problems are deepening in our political arena, though many would argue that it has little to do with the ages of those “front-runners.” But, imagine if we had men and women in their 30s or 40s filling the Blue House and the Yeouido Assembly hall, would we still see the same unproductive politics with parties waging life-and-death struggles for larger cuts in power?
Urgent bills on people’s lives are gathering dust, demonstrations calling for the departure of the incumbent president continue in the capital city’s main plaza, three years after protests in the same place forced the previous one out. Former President Park Geun-hye and her conservative predecessor Lee Myung-bak are facing long prison sentences on an assortment of charges -- not including treason, fortunately!
With parliamentary elections barely four months away, party officers are racking their brains to freshen up party images by posting candidates from the younger generation, preferably the millennials, as many as possible. Yet, few lawmakers in the older age bracket have declared an exit from politics and all the presidential hopefuls are seeking party nominations for the National Assembly elections.
A leadership problem in the main opposition Liberty Korea Party means anabsence of charismatic authority and organizational unity. Current main opposition head Hwang Kyo-ahn quickly learned and practiced the traditional rituals of anti-government campaigning, tonsuring his head and fasting to the limit of his physical and spiritual strength, which, however, has had only meager effect in shedding his caretaker image as a recruit from a year ago with the not-so-honorable title as Park’s last prime minister.
With the ruling camp, the primary malady is blind compliance with the president’s rather precarious, ideologically-tinted policy options that we are afraid are forged under his close aides’ misguidance. Another problem is the pressure from the former leftist activists in its rank who still consider themselves worthy of a mainstream role and demand party support in the April elections, although they look over-the-hill already and corrupt in the eyes of both insiders and outsiders, who search for younger leaders.
The Moon presidency has a few more hurdles to clear other than the Cho Kuk scandal before the elections. One is the prosecution’s extended probe into some of the president’s close confidants suspected of abusing their power in order to interfere with a metropolitan city mayoral election and an apparent cover-up of corruption investigation into near the center of power. In the hazy prospect of leadership conveyance after potential successors disappeared in one scandal after another, a bright star is nowhere in sight.
Cho, 54, who was justice minister for 35 days, is resorting to the Korean version of the Fifth Amendment, being summoned to the prosecutors’ office as a suspect in business fraud and obstruction of justice cases involving his family. Whether he may or may not be exonerated finally, his aura as a shining leftist ideologue has been shattered as too many of his past acts and words revealed hypocrisy and falsity.
Former South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung, 54, was disgraced in a #MeToo case, Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung, 55, and South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyung-soo, 51, are struggling under criminal procedures over abuse of power and election-related fraud, respectively, and Rhyu Si-min, 60, has lost many of his supporters for taking sides with Cho. Left on the roster are Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, 67, former presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok, 53, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, 63, and a few others.
On the opposition side, Hwang Kyo-ahn, 62, has yet to display the kind of political craftiness and an image of tolerance to gather other conservative politicians under his torch. Other potential candidates include former South Gyeongsang Gov. Hong Joon-pyo, 64, and Rep. Yoo Seung-min, 61, who had run in 2017 against Moon, Na Kyung-won, 55, Oh Se-hoon, 58, Kim Moon-soo, 68, Ahn Cheol-soo, 57, and Sohn Hak-kyu.
The trouble with veteran politicians on whichever side is their being obsessed with and trapped in partisan interests, insulated from the real desire of the people. Half a century ago in the peak of military dictatorship, “40-year-old as our standard-bearer” was the opposition catchphrase in their campaign against Park Chung-hee. Kim Dae-jung, then 47, fought valiantly against his formidable foe with unified opposition support.
One important reason why we are envious of the youthful leadership in the Western hemisphere is their increasing ideological ambiguity in taking practical policy measures, regardless of the names and even platforms of parties they represent, as if they are just following the biblical doctrine of not turning aside to the right or left.
The advent of young leaders in different continents brought us a new dream -- to see politics being played out with fresh ideas, gentle behavior and bold compromise toward a common good, which even the young dictator in North Korea cannot but admire and emulate eventually.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He served as head of the Korea Overseas Information Service. -- Ed.