In Korea’s modern history, there has not been a Korean that could be called a “hero” since Admiral Yi Sun-sin, a war hero during Japan’s invasion in 1592-98. Of course, we have “national singers,” Olympic gold medalists, and actors in the “Korean Wave.” However, there is not a historical hero for whom the entire nation can revere.
When late President Kim Dae-jung became the first Korean to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, our nation was deeply inspired.
However, our disappointment was just as deep when news broke about his massive slush fund located in New York. Although it was never proven whether those allegations were true or not, it seems that most people feel the matter would never be disclosed in detail anyway.
The nation had high expectations for former President Roh Moo-hyun, a young man who seemed full of spirit. However, it was not long after his inauguration when he was impeached by the National Assembly, a shameful event without precedent in Korean history.
Although he was soon reinstated by a decision of the Constitutional Court, his popularity continued to plummet as the so-called “386 Generation,” young and inexperienced amateurs that surrounded him, led him to make a series of bad decisions.
Once news of the money-laundering issue involving his family broke, he became depressed and eventually committed suicide.
Even long after his death, there are still accusations of him having an illegal hidden bank fund.
Former President Kim Young-sam was the first non-military president elected since Gen.
Park Chung-hee’s 1961 military coup, and the people had high expectations when he showed his determination to clean up “Hanahoe,” an elite military group highly influential to the presidential scene. However, Kim’s image crashed after scandals related a hidden presidential campaign fund and his son’s involvement in bribery charges.
Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Taewoo were sent to prison for slush funds accumulated during their presidency. Park, who became president after the coup and ruled the country 18 years, was assassinated. And the nation’s first President Syngman Rhee was routed by the April 19, 1960, student uprising.
It is a sad reality that we have no former president that can be revered as a national hero.
Prime Minister-designate Kim Tae-ho was in national headlines almost every day since his nomination. He was a rising a star, a tall and handsome governor in his 40s. Some said his nomination was a stepping stone to the presidency, and the people were moved by his dramatic success story from a youth spent in poverty.
It seemed certain that he would become a hero in 2010. So what happened? During his confirmation hearings last month, he continually had to apologize for changing his story when asked questions lawmakers over his dubious ties with Park Yeon-cha, jailed CEO of the Busan-based shoemaker Taekwang, who offered illegal funds to politicians and bureaucrats including President Roh Moo-hyun. He had to give up his nomination due to a lack of morality and integrity.
Coupled with other Cabinet nominees and their ethical wrongdoings, the public was disappointed to watch the nationally televised confirmation hearings. People wondered why more morally and ethically fitting candidates could not be found in the entire country.
However, not everything is so bad. Our economy has rapidly progressed, despite everything going on politics, to the point where Korea has escaped its postwar poverty and is now the 15th-largest economy in the world.
Our sense of morality and justice, put aside in the process of escaping poverty, has now reached a high level. Watching the recent confirmation hearings made me feel like Koreans have a higher standard for their political leaders.
Is it a stretch to find hope in the fact that the debatably trivial wrongdoings that took down Kim and two other Cabinet nominees might have been ignored in the old days? No. Those wrongdoings may have been the norm in the past; now, they are not being overlooked any longer.
An example of this can be found in the resignation of Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Yu Myung-hwan. Early this month, he was forced to resign over a scandal involving his daughter who was given an unfair advantage through a specially tailored employment program to be hired by his own ministry. This might have been overlooked in the past; instead, it led to his downfall.
Compare this to a similar case in America.
In 1989, John Tower, a secretary of defensenominee and a big name in American politics, failed his confirmation vote in the Senate by a 53-47 vote, despite 24 years of service in that same Senate. He was the first man to fail a confirmation vote in 30 years. What was his problem? One issue was that he was a heavy drinker and very fond of women.
Despite the fact that these are merely personal issues unrelated to his politics, that he had never had any legal problems from his drinking and had never been charged with sexual harassment, he was still voted down by the Senate.
Even when he made a pledge to quit drinking upon his confirmation, the Senate didn’t believe him and rejected his nomination, based entirely on his past unethical and immoral behavior. I am certain that one day even in Korea a candidate wishing to be a head of government will have to avoid women and alcohol completely.
Because our ethical standards have been raised so high, it seems that becoming a hero will become more difficult. We have had many shameful incidents in our country’s political past.
It is painful to remember having to send former Presidents elected by our people to prison once their terms had expired, and I hope that we never see that again. We have seen our nation take major strides toward becoming a leading nation of the world. Now is the time for a new hero to emerge.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).