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[Kim Jong-han] A national leader should have vision

Although the presidential election in South Korea is more than a year away and a field of politicians vying to succeed current President Lee Myung-bak includes more than a dozen candidates, one name surfaces repeatedly as the likely winner. Rarely in modern Korean presidential politics has one unannounced candidate become so dominant over the rest of the competition more than a year before the election. The candidate that everyone in Korea is talking about as the next president is the former head of the current ruling party, the Grand National Party, Park Geun-hye. If elected, she will become the first woman president of the Republic of Korea (the first female leader of Korea in over 1,000 years). Her election will also establish a father-daughter presidential combination rarely seen in an industrialized nation.

Although she became well-known as the daughter of President Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea from 1961 to 1979, she has become a political leader in her own right. Graceful and elegant and known for her unwavering principles and integrity (rare characteristics in Korea’s murky politics), Park is a popular national political figure. Using her strong appeal and popularity, she has time and again delivered crucial victories in the past national and regional elections for her party. As the reigning queen of election victories, her mere presence can deliver a high voter turnout and decisive votes.

Curiously, however, for such a well-known and powerful national political leader, Park has rarely, if ever, spoken about her vision for the Republic of Korea that she so desires to lead. Based upon her past stance on various political issues, one can decipher that she is a conservative, but it is unclear what her visions are for her nation.

Which direction does she plan to take Korea if elected? Will the Republic of Korea that she hopes to lead be a pro-growth industrial powerhouse or does she plan for a more egalitarian state with less income disparity? Does she envision a low-tax, pro-business economy along the lines of Singapore and Hong Kong, or does she envision a Swedish-style high-tax, high-welfare-spending society? Unfortunately, she remains “mum” even as the conservative-liberal debate rages on in the Korean society over this fundamental issue.

It’s puzzling that while Park hopes to become the next president, she does not want to speak out on basic and critical issues. In the U.S. presidential politics, candidates purposely speak out on controversial issues and often make outrageous statements to capture the interest of the populace. Imagine Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann running for president but remaining silent on important issues facing the nation. Their campaign would be over very quickly.

Unlike Park, who is steering away from making any public stance on controversial issues, Oh Se-hoon, the incumbent mayor of Seoul, who has presidential ambitions of his own, is taking a highly public and politically risky stance on the issue of free school meals. Mayor Oh, a member of the ruling GNP, is so outraged by the opposition progressive party’s bill which would provide free school meals to all school children, whether poor or rich, that he has vowed to fight “welfare populism.” Concerned that providing free school meals to children from wealthy families is a misuse of the city’s already tight budget, Mayor Oh has called for a referendum. The plebiscite is scheduled to take place in August.

Mayor Oh’s public and vocal stance on this issue is quite surprising. Tall and handsome, suave and mild-mannered, he looks more like a celebrity than a rough political in-fighter. However, as the leader in charge of the municipality with over 12 million people and an already tight budget, Mayor Oh has unequivocally spoken out against the irresponsible and wasteful government spending. Not deterred by his fellow conservatives’ deafening silence, Mayor Oh has taken a step further in his fight by calling for a city-wide referendum on the issue.

Mayor Oh’s move could be devastating to his political career if he loses in the referendum. However, in contrast to so many of his political peers who are either joining the populist wave in pursuit of incremental popularity or staying far away from the controversy for the fear of criticism, Mayor Oh has laid out his stance publicly which gives a good glimpse of his vision for the nation.

A national political leader must have many important characteristics. Judgment, integrity, courage, compassion and competence are some of the more important features of a strong political leader. Among them, however, perhaps the most important of all is vision. A national leader must have a vision to where he or she wants to take the nation and its people. A competent statesman without a vision could be a good manager, but cannot be a good “leader.”

Hopefully, candidates in the upcoming Korean presidential election will have the courage to spell out their vision for their country.

By Kim Jong-han 

Kim Jong-han is a Hong Kong-based partner at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, an international law firm. He is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and its law school. ― Ed.
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