Many Koreans often lament that they have not had great leaders with legacies such as John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, or Abraham Lincoln: If South Korea were lucky enough to have had such famous leaders, she would surely have been a more advanced and admirable country. Facing the Presidential Election Day in March 2022, many Koreans wish to have a great leader comparable to the above-mentioned political leaders. Thus, they wonder; “What would happen if one of those great leaders were our president?”
Suppose John F. Kennedy were the next president of South Korea. In his inaugural speech, he would doubtless say, “My fellow Koreans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” He would put an end to the populism that had plagued the Korean society, arguing that the previous government had spoiled the people to expect that the government should do everything for them. Indeed, brainwashed by misguided socialism, the Korean people tend to assume that everything is their government’s responsibility, including unemployment and poverty. The problem is that the more you depend on your government, the more it will manipulate and control you under the pretense of responsibility.
Then, Kennedy would inspire the Korean young people with his “New Frontier Spirit.” Instead of being obsessed with the past, he would stimulate the Korean youth with the spirit of adventure and the dream of the future. He would also pursue “Civil Rights” legislation, which would guarantee equal opportunities for everybody, including women, minorities, and foreign immigrants.
In addition, Kennedy would skillfully handle the perilous situation of South Korea, caught between China and the US, not to mention the conflicts between North Korea and the US. At the same time, he would boldly stand up against any threats from bullying nations, as he did when the Cuban Missile Crisis intimidated the US in 1962. Facing an unprecedented threat from the Soviet Union and Cuba, Kennedy stood up firmly and dexterously handled the crisis.
If Winston Churchill were the next president of South Korea, he would alert us that foreign dictators who had approached with offers of “peace” had deceived the previous government, just as Hitler did to Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. Then, he would courageously confront and fight the common enemy together with allies. Meanwhile, Churchill would do his best to protect his people and steer the nation in the right direction amid the whirlpool of international crisis, as he did in the UK during World War II.
Churchill also would deal with criticism with generosity and a light heart. He was famous for his witty responses to any harsh criticism in the UK. Churchill neither showed anger and agitation in front of criticism nor hid in his office and avoided the press. Instead, he dealt with criticism with a superb sense of humor and gave inspiring speeches that deeply moved the British people who were depressed during the war.
If Nelson Mandela were the next president of South Korea, he would end Korea’s chronic disease, political vendettas, for good. Although he had spent 27 long years in prison as a political prisoner, Mandela did not seek vengeance when he seized political power later. Instead, he generously forgave his political foes and thereby brought reconciliation and harmony to the South African Republic. Perhaps those who broke the law or ruined the nation seriously while in office may have to take responsibility. Yet, Mandela would never seek political retributions in Korea. Instead, he would put an end to the evil cycle of vicious revenge.
If Abraham Lincoln were our next president, he would create a consolidated government by appointing his political rivals in his cabinet. He would embrace his critics and bring them to his staff if they were able and competent. He would also call for unity by saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” as he had done in his famous speech in 1858.
In the US, Lincoln was modest and humble, not arrogant or self-righteous. However, he was resolute in protecting the North against the South during the Civil War. By winning the war, he not only protected the North, but also freed slaves in the South, thereby killing two birds with one stone. Lincoln was a peaceful man, not a belligerent one, and yet he decided to fight against the South to protect the North and liberal democracy.
Likewise, if he were our next president, Lincoln would stand firm against North Korea to protect South Korea when and if negotiations went awry. He would know that he should build a strong army in order to maintain or win peace. He would assume a low profile not to provoke hostile nations, but would never be subservient to any aggressors.
We deplore the situation that we do not have such great leaders in our country now. We can only hope that our next president follows in the footsteps of the above legendary leaders as much as possible.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.