Thursday, April 20, 2006

The next president of the Republic of Korea: Han Myŏngsuk

UPDATE (November 2008):
She didn't get the nomination and she didn't switch parties to run. Lee Myung-bak is now president.

UPDATE (June 17, 2007):

On Monday in Seoul (Sunday in the US), Ms. Han announced she is running for president, so my "next president" prediction might still turn out to be true, even if I got the "how" and "why" wrong.

UPDATE (April 30, 2007):
Okay, so the February 25 date has come and gone and not only has Roh not resigned, Han is no longer PM. But she still might be the next president if she runs.

I used to care about being the first to break a Korea-related story in the Korea-related blogosphere. I had dreams that my post on the matter would be cited by all the other blogs, and I would gain some legendary status in the blogosphere. Then there would be detractors jealous of my fame or fearful of my influence—some Korean, some kyopo, some crackers—viciously trying to bring me down, even to the point of tracking me down or keying my pimped-out minivan. Then I'd have to use all my AdSense profits to hire body guards. One of them would look like Kevin Costner and try to come on to me. But as I've repeatedly made clear on Space Nakji's blog, I don't swing that way.

Okay, so blog-fame has its price. But anyway, none of this came to any fruition because I usually am NOT acknowledged even when I'm the first to bring something into K-blogdom. I've found, much to my dismay, that I gain notice primarily when I provide profanity-ridden posts that make fun of some group.

So I was not too disappointed that I was not the first to bring news that we in Korea now have our first female prime minister (I say we even though I can't vote, because my taxes pay her salary; besides, nobody really votes for the prime minister anyway).

In fact, being fifth or sixth out the gate on this one, I've realized that it has given me a chance to try a different route. For shorthand purposes, I'm going to call this the Baduk route. It involves making wildly outrageous soothsaying that could end up being true.

Baduk is, as everybody knows, absolutely certifiable. Yet he is well-known, even being written up in the local press, because of his very vocal pronouncement that Dr. Hwang Woo-suk was a fraud. At the time, he was considered nuts, but after Dr. Hwang went down in flames, Baduk was respected. Still considered nuts, but respected—sort of a modern-day Emperor Norton.

And so I'm going to make such a prediction: Prime Minister Han Myŏngsuk (does she spell her name Han Myung Sook? Not sure, but I'll leave that in there for googling purposes) will be Korea's next president.

In and of itself, that is not such a profound prognostication, except that I am predicting she will become President sometime next year, most likely in January or February (or possibly December or March). Or more specifically, Acting President.

How she gets there is clear, and it will involve very little work on her part: President Roh Moohyun is going to quit. President Roh is not up for the job, but the fact is that he himself knows it. He tells us this all the time, and just to drive the point home, he proves it on occasion.

President Roh has also made the case that Korea should adopt a different system for its leadership: either the parliamentary system (as in Japan or Britain) where the ruling party or a ruling coalition chooses the Premier (not a President) from amongst themselves; or an American-like presidential system where the President is chosen by the people (directly or indirectly) and serves for a shorter term (e.g., four years) and can stand for re-election.

President Roh seems to prefer the American-style system, and he has said several times that five years is just too long for one person to serve. And again, to drive this point home, he demonstrates the disaster of being stuck with someone for five long years.

President Roh seems to think that it's okay for a presidential incumbent to run again, but that he wouldn't choose that path. Not that the voters would want him to anyway.

President Roh seems to have run because he wanted to prove that a leftist radical could make it to the Blue House. Fine, he's done that. But he also doesn't feel up for being there for five years. In fact, he offered to quit if enough of the public wanted to get rid of him (although it's probably good that he didn't resign during the impeachment, because that would have made it too easy for an opposition to remove a democratically elected leader).

So when the four-year mark on his tenure rolls around (which is February 25, 2007, by the way), expect him to make a "symbolic gesture" in support of his proposal of adopting the American system by resigning. He will resign and Han Myŏngsuk will be Acting President. With the constitutionally determined presidential election scheduled for Novemeber or December of that year anyway, there will be little public support for having Acting President Han replaced in an early election; even if such an election were to go ahead, she will likely be kept in the job anyway, making her a full-fledged President.

This must have great appeal for President Roh. He has been unable to put his mark on anything significant. He is well on his way to tanking Seoul-Tokyo relations, Seoul-Washington relations, but without corresponding improvement of either Seoul-Beijing relations or Seoul-Pyongyang relations. The capital is staying in Seoul, although Seoul will be one-fifth its current size, and Kangnam real estate is still in the stratosphere.

There's nothing left for him to put a positive mark on except effecting a change in the nature of ROK's leadership. Like Ben Kenobi letting Darth Vader strike him down in that first Star Wars flick (the one actually titled "Star Wars"), his self-sacrifice will be what makes him an immortal force in the future. It's just too appealing.

So here's hoping that PM Han can be a competent leader. I already like her for having stated that the Tokto/Takeshima crisis needs to be handled in a cool-headed way. If she does nothing other than temper the childish rantings of the Roh administration, she will be worth her salary. If she can find a way to insert a backbone into the administration when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang and Beijing, while bringing some pragmatism in dealing with Korea's closest allies, Washington and Tokyo, then she deserves a raise.

Oh, and Niels Footman, when Acting President Han is sworn in, let me know the address of the Joongang Daily so I can send you some 8x10 head shots for you to use in your column.


  1. Sperwer wrote:
    Interesting hyposthesis indeed.

    Thank you, sperwer and jimong.

    But I think that it would just be a pointless gesture politically speaking.

    Well, I'm not trying to make a prediction about its usefulness or efficacy—or the public response—only that it will happen.

    While it obviously would effect a several month change in the ROK's actual leadership, which of course will change anyway with the election, it's a non sequitur to claim that it would mean any change in the "nature" of ROK leadership.

    You may be right, and it may all be for naught, but certainly Roh has made a number of moves that fly in the face of what we in the middle or on the right might deem wise moves toward some purpose.

    Maybe in his value system, by giving Korea its first four-year presidency, he will have effected enough change in his mind.

    Ditto for giving Korea its first—in fact, Northeast Asia's first—female head-of-state. Maybe that will be enough of a change to those on the leftist-activist end of the spectrum to be a change. Sort of like former Vice President Walter Mondale choosing a female running mate as VP to engender (pun intended) thinking that a woman really could lead a powerful nation.

    Roh might get a personal feel good buzz, and maybe even a few appreciative grunts about his making a point of principle, but his resignation alone won't result in a change to a ministerial system or a US style presidential system.

    Maybe, maybe not. The change to an American-style system (or a Japanese-style system) is talked about a lot, and it has been at least since the early 1990s. Combine that with a common tendency in Korea for seismic change, and Roh's abdication could be the catalyst for reaching critical mass on the issue.

    And as for changing the "tradition" of the outgoing bums picking their successors, when has that ever really been a factor in modern Korea apart from the transition from Chun to Noh?

    I'm not saying it has. My prediction coming true does not rely on Acting President Han being being elected as a full-blown president. Indeed, she might be seen as a Gerald Ford-type figure, a caretaker president, and she is not given the nomination by her party, or the opposition wins, or her own party dissolves under so much leftover baggage from the Roh-Chung debacular administration.

    In fact, I think the only way AP Han could win full election is if she made clear her policies were much more centrist. She would have to make a point of standing up to Pyongyang instead of standing in the same prone position of her predecessor (and his lackey Chung Dong-young) through which they took it in the hindquarters.

    Moroever, one could make the case that , as far as electoral politics goes, DJ effected a change in that tradition when he replaced KYS and Roh just sort of continued the incipient pattern. But it's way too early to draw any conclusions about the demise of elite control over the political process on the basis of a couple of examples. In the end, therefore, I don't think Roh will do what you suggest.

    You're making an argument about the efficacy of such a move, an argument that assumes that (a) the current head-of-state is knowledgable of these factors and (b) he shares your values. I suggest that neither (a) or (b) constitutes facts-in-evidence.

    Although he has demonstrated a remarkable amount of political stupidity, one thing that can be said for him is that he has striven to accomplsh some big, even radical (not always necessarily leftist), changes in the Korean polity. I believe that like his hero Lincoln he had truly Olympian ambitions in this regard. Unfortunately, though, he didn't just similarly come from humble origins, he truly was - unlike Lincoln - a man of truly humble talents. He just wasn't up to the job, let alone his own ambitions.

    All the more reason for him to take this route. He has made it clear that (a) he thinks five years is too long, (b) he is tired of the job, and (c), he also wants to effect some change. The three converging together make this a far more likely possibility than anything else.

    Frankly, I did not make this prediction with PM Han in mind. Whether male or female, I was waiting to see if a reasonably competent PM would arrive, around whom a wide segment of the population could get behind. If that were to happen, I thought my prediction of Roh had a chance of happening. I'm not giving it 95% odds. At best I'd give it 50-50 odds. But that's far more than most anybody else would have given it.

    That's why I call him The Great Pretender. But the point is that he will only resign if it accomplishes something politically. You really haven't presented a convincing case that he can.

    Yes, but I only need to present a case where he thinks he might. A well-constructed speech about political sacrifice to drive home his support for an American-style presidential system might convince him that this is a good thing to do.

    Thus, although he might feel like getting out from under the burden of office sooner for personal reasons, I don't think he will. In the absence of a real political end that is achieved thereby such a move would be the ultimate failure of his presidency.

    Sperwer, this is a man who, essentially, begged to be removed (I'm not talking about the impeachment, but the calls for a confidence vote).

  2. Well, in Roh's most recent speech, he has brought up the two-term presidency issue yet again. Maybe the prediction will come true.

    Even if he doesn't do it by February 25, close to it (like in March or April) should still be considered good enough to have pulled a Paduk.


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