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[Kim Myong-sik] 72 years from Rhee Syng-man to Moon Jae-in

Confusion in the US presidential election passed two weeks since the Nov. 3 voting with Donald Trump still refusing to accept Joe Biden’s victory despite the final electoral votes of 232 and 306. Korean President Moon Jae-in called President-elect Biden for 14 minutes last week to congratulate him on his win.

The New York Times summed up: Trump falsely maintains he would have won without widespread voter irregularities. In fact, top election officials across the country have said that there is no evidence that fraud or other irregularities played a role in the outcome.

People in and outside the 50 US states imagine dramatic scenes taking place in Washington before the Jan. 20, 2021 inauguration, while some even fear the worst event of uniformed federal guards escorting Trump out of the White House. Pessimism and optimism must be cautiously mixed while many hope that intelligence and reason will prevail over obstinacy to settle the matter.

In countries like Korea where the democratic system emerged after the last world war, US politics revolving around presidential contests was the textbook for their domestic politics. Political aspirants as well as the average citizen watched the peaceful process of US presidential elections from the primaries to the transition of power every four years in the depth of winter with admiration.

As the multiple presidential hopefuls from large and small states are narrowed down to fewer candidates and finally to two party nominees, their speeches, slogans and platforms presented in powerful political language are remembered by students of politics of the world as scriptures of democracy. On the rare occasions of procedural controversies, the gracious gesture of concession by one contender is gratefully accepted by the other side and the whole electorate. Then the world audience attentively listens to the inaugural address of the new leader which could affect their future.

Donald Trump is changing this pattern. The incumbent president and the nominee of the ruling party is acting just the opposite, demanding court intervention to withhold the announcement of the winner and start recounting the ballots. The whole world by now knows who the American voters have chosen but the loser is obstructing the final step indefinitely.

We are witnessing a man of demagogic skill and dubious moral aptitude stirring up a large portion of the population and causing political instability in the origin of modern democracy. The force of conscientious citizens can subdue such dissent helped by media condemnation, hopefully within this year, but extended dispute beyond inauguration day may be possible because the present trouble is the result of internal rift that had been exacerbated throughout the Trump presidency.

Here in Korea where left-right rivalry has been sharpened over the recent decades, and especially after an untimely change of power from a presidential impeachment three years ago, there are growing concerns of possible election disputes in the future as the current developments in the US offer a bad example. The militant attitudes of some pro-government warriors in and outside the administration cause premature tensions.

The Republic of Korea has had 10 presidents since the founding of the government in 1948 under a constitution whose drafters had envisioned the presidential system emulating that of the US. The first three presidents, Rhee Syng-man, Park Chung-hee and Chun Do-hwan who were in power for 12, 18 and seven years respectively, had not put the nation on the bedrock of democracy but carried its economy to industrialization in the free market system.

South Korean intellectuals made strenuous efforts to gain political freedom, sometimes with bloody uprisings. “Democratization” came officially with the rewriting of the Constitution in 1987, which still is effective. But the earlier presidents, Rhee, Park and Chun, deserve recognition for raising the nation to the upper rank of the international community through post-war hardships in contrast to the rather meager accomplishments of the seven presidents in later years.

My old friend Lee Young-il, a prominent scholar-politician and once a dissident activist, has made a thoughtful assessment of the achievements in four decades of the three authoritarian-style presidents relative to what their seven successors have done in the following 33 years, in his book, titled “Our Not Unlikable Presidents.” (HadA Books 2019)

Rhee, from a remote royal lineage of the Joseon Kingdom and educated in Princeton and Harvard Universities, had strong belief in Western democracy and capitalist economy but lacked good sense of timing for exit due to senility. He gave up on Communists and chose to form a separate government in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula with UN recognition and then secured military alliance with the US as the primary shield for national security.

Park, the coup leader in 1961, used his power entirely for the buildup of the nation’s economic strength. His so-called “dictatorship for development” was instrumental in making Koreans proud of being Korean, Lee said. Another general-turned-president Chun, continued the economic thrust and kept his promise of a single-term presidency, effectively preventing the prolongation of power in this country, according to Lee who served three terms as lawmaker and top analyst for the Unification Ministry.

Lee criticized the seven popularly-elected presidents in more recent times particularly for ignoring the positive side of their three predecessors who actually made South Korea the extreme opposite to North Korea. In succession, they achieved what is termed the three pillars of Korea today. They are the Korea-US military alliance, the “3050 status” meaning $30,000 per capita GDP for a population of 50 million, and the constitutional guarantee of single-term presidency.

Through the years of presidents Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, public trust in the highest office declined steadily until Moon Jae-in marked an anticlimax in a not quite proud history of Korean presidency by putting his two immediate predecessors into jail on corruption and power abuse charges.

With a year and a half left before the next election, the presidential race is already in the offing. South Koreans are uneasy, overlooking the ugly aftermath of the election in D.C. and other cities of the US, where coronavirus victims are overflowing, while in their own country the left-right animosity is rising high with the incumbent president apparently being unable to promote internal harmony or is uninterested in doing so.

Still, we will plead our president to let us hope for something better than what’s taking place in the United States now.


Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was managing editor of The Korea Times in the 1990s. -- Ed.
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