The fateful day of deciding Korea’s future has arrived at last. Today, the Korean people will choose their destiny by electing their new political leader. If we vote for the wrong person, our future will be grim and bleak. If we choose the right person, we might avoid the calamity of utter collapse, if not have the luxury of a bright future. In that sense, the 2022 presidential election will be one of the most crucial ones South Korea has ever had.
Unfortunately, the 2022 Korean election is an embarrassingly scandal-ridden one. It is a shame when even the foreign press is alarmed that our presidential candidates’ camps are fighting dirty and aiming low, finding fault even with their rival’s spouses on a daily basis. For example, the Washington Post published an article titled, “South Korea’s pivotal presidential election marred by scandals, bickering and insults.” The Times in the UK, too, carried an article entitled, “Leaders’ wives dragged into Korea’s election of unlikeables.”
It is embarrassing that our major presidential candidates and their wives have allegedly been involved in ethical and even legal wrongdoings. It is frustrating that both of our prime candidates are “unlikeable,” and thus we have to elect the “less damaging” candidate for the country.
Whoever is defeated on election today, he must accept his defeat and not become a sore loser. As for the winner, he has the urgent task of putting the derailed country back on the right track. The problem is that the bus named South Korea is not ready to roll right away because it broke down and is off the street now. To make matters worse, the passengers are deeply divided and antagonize each other, fighting over which direction they should take.
Recently, a foreign expert on Korea wrote to me about the present situation of Korea in terms that are quite depressing, but convincing. “In the coming years, people will begin to feel the pain, confusion, and desperation created mainly in the past three or four years. No matter who is hired to drive the big bus, first you have to lift it up from the bottom of the cliff,” he said.
Then, he continues, “It may sound ruthless, but as I see it, people will inevitably face so much suffering and hardship in the coming years that hopefully it will be a good opportunity to realize how dangerous and devastating populism can be.”
Indeed, our new driver should repair the damaged parts first, lift up the bus from the bottom of a gorge, and put it back on the road, which is not an easy thing to do. Another problem is that the National Assembly, which is run by the majority opposition party, might oppose even the most necessary tasks of the new government.
Perhaps the repair job should begin with unifying the divided people and healing the psychological wounds inflicted by the previous government through their extremely prejudiced ideological bipolarity. For that purpose, unity and reconciliation should be the new leader’s primary concern.
Then, the new president should stabilize our society by putting an end to the rampant populism that has plagued our country for the past few years. Populism is sweet in the mouth, but bitter in the belly. The indiscrete populism of the previous administration has left indelible scars on our society, from which we will have to suffer in the years to come. The above expert writes, “The suffering will include damage to the overall economy, jobs, taxes, energy, and a heavy burden to repay debts.”
The new leader should also drastically change South Korea’s course of diplomacy, which has been misguided in the last few years. A foreign expert recently wrote, “In the diplomatic field, we saw Korea totally undressed, and we saw little beauty.” When it comes to our seeming cul-de-sac relationship with Japan, for example, our diplomacy should be subtle and refined, not aggressive and crude from now on. When caught in the crossfire between socialist countries and the countries of liberal democracy, our attitude should be firm and resolute, not opportunistic or swayed; we value liberal democracy, not totalitarian socialism. Besides, luckily we still have a powerful ally, with which we share the same values.
We should also learn valuable lessons from the recent Ukraine incident. Among others, we should be aware that former imperialist countries are not trustworthy. The political leaders of those countries daydream that they could restore their past glories by invading their neighboring countries. We should keep in mind that “peace” promised by those belligerent countries carries no guarantee.
The above-mentioned foreign expert’s assessment of our situation is disheartening, but correct: “No matter who is hired as the driver, it will not be humanly possible to fix all the accumulated wrong decisions made in recent years. Five years is not enough, probably not even ten years, both domestically and internationally.”
Let us hope we choose the right driver for the bus named South Korea today.
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.