Red, white and blue. Those were the colors I was taught to consider as most important when I was a kid living in the US back in the 80s. They are the colors of the American flag, the flag that symbolizes love and trust for the country.
When I came back to Korea, it was odd to me how Koreans seemed to hold our national flag -- the Taegeukki -- in less regard. The sentiment seemed even more negative when it came to the presidents. It wasn’t until a long time afterward, after I had learned the history of Korea, that I realized where the uneasiness and lingering sense of animosity toward the government and all that stands for it stem from.
In this sense, the 2002 World Cup was a watershed moment, not only for sports fans, but for many Koreans for whom the Taegeukki began to hold more meaning as the proud symbol of Korea. It was to an extent that warnings were issued not to take too much liberty with the flag. Bikinis made with Taegukki colors and symbols, for instance, were frowned upon.
President Moon Jae-in’s inauguration seems to be the World Cup for Korean politics. After months of cringing whenever the president was mentioned in the news, both at home and abroad, feeling insecure about our democratic maturity, our politicians and civil servants, and even ourselves, we are finally out of the woods.
I do doubt that his policies would be perfect. Some will be half-baked, like his predecessors. Still, others may go a long way. He may end up doing more harm than good to the economy by killing off the chaebol, undergoing more welfare projects than our national budget can afford, creating more jobs -- public sector jobs at that -- than the economy can support. High taxation rates could kill the spending mood and prompt the rich to move out of the country. He might adopt North Korean policies that put too little pressure on Pyongyang to make Kim Jong-un even more rash than before, despite the camaraderie between Washington, Seoul, Moscow and Beijing toward North Korea.
But all this comes second when you think that people are now daring to hope again. Hope that the country may actually began to grow again, both inwards and out. The president is going out of his way to go bipartisan and break down the barriers. He made headlines for choosing top aides who served for his political rivals like Ahn Cheol-soo. He also chose a woman who had not passed the state exam to head the Foreign Ministry. Another woman will be heading the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans. At the same time, he is bringing back people who had been pushed in the corner for their anti-government, anti-mainstream tendencies.
This may not be all the ingredients for success, but he is at least reading into what the people want. He is at least creating a sense of unity, and not division. Whether the policies that will be set in motion, or the people he is surrounding himself with were the best, we won’t know for sure until a long time from now. But for now, there is a sense of ease and comfort that Koreans have not felt for a while now. For at least a few months, and perhaps many years.
This sentiment is already seeping into the economy. The Kospi has been at record-breaking highs, workers are hopeful that working conditions may ease, bringing shorter hours, higher productivity, more permanent jobs. Companies are trying to comply, perhaps because they are in fear of the new policymakers, such as the likes of Jang Ha-sung and Kim Sang-jo, who are known for their reformist ways. Or it could be because Samsung’s Lee Jay-yong is in jail and the corporate sector doesn’t want any more trouble. At the same time, Lee’s imprisonment has signaled that the government can no longer twist the arms of chaebol. Perhaps companies are aware and feel they want to try to do the right thing.
We may never really find out if Moon has the fabric of a good leader, or if the timing was just right -- getting elected when he did. I also find it a bit absurd that people take so much issue with little gestures; he opens doors for himself, takes his own jacket off, loves selfies and hates heavy security.
But what we do know is great leadership begins with a strong support base, and in that regard, he seems to be off to a good start.
By Kim Ji-hyun (email@example.com)
The writer is the editor-in-chief of The Investor