What Ban Ki-moon has to learn from the past

[box title=”Note” box_color=”#777777″]I wrote this piece Jan 16, when Ban was still hot in ROK politics. It was written for a project I’m participating but it was losing its relevance to the current ROK politics as the publication got delayed with new events happening. Finally, it had a death sentence when Ban abruptly threw in the towel on Feb 1.

I post the piece by now because I still think this 2,200-word feature about South Korean politics has some relevance, especially to South Korean’s politicophobia and celeb newcomers’ common failure in politics. Just the first draft, so you may find some seams, sorry in advance![/box]

He is a prominent contender for the next presidency of the Republic of Korea. Though politics has never been his thing, his support rate has been among the top bunch, by far surpassing several serious career politicians.

In fact, the lack of his career in politics was one of the very reasons why he has been so popular. South Korean citizens are fed up with corrupted, slimy politicians who always failed them in the end.

While some pundits expressed their concern for his lack of experience in politics, people laud his success in his career, which made him renowned worldwide. People expected him to achieve the same in running the country.

At some point, his support rate was 42.4 per cent, beating Park Geun-hye, the most prominent candidate then, for the first time. He was thought to be the most competitive candidate than Moon Jae-in against Park.

Whom the hell I am talking about, you ask me? It’s Ahn Chul-soo and the year was 2012, when Park was competing against Moon and Ahn. Well, Park won then as we all know.

Ahn Chul-soo

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. With the shiny return of Ban Ki-moon from Manhattan to Seoul, Ban had better try recite the killer line of George Santayana. Lest he should meet the fate of Ahn Chul-soo.

The Case of Ahn

Speaking of which, how is Ahn these days, five years after his first run for the presidency? No good, at all.

Once the most prominent candidate, his rank now in the recent polls is the fourth, even behind Seongnam mayor Lee Jae-myung, whose famed populist posture gave him a quick boost in his support right after the Choi Soon-sil scandal.

What’s worse, he’s losing his grip on his own party. His candidate lost to a Honam mogul in an election for the party whip in last December. A recent analysis on Ahn is entitled Would there be a chance to rebound for crumbled Ahn?

Ahn Chul-soo was the very first successful entrepreneur in South Korean IT business history but he never meant to be a businessman at the beginning.

A holder of M.D. and Ph.D. at the prestigious Seoul National University, Ahn began to look into computer virus as a hobby while pursuing for the doctoral degree. His brainchild Vaccine, first introduced in 1988, was one of the first antivirus software in the world.

His company AhnLab, founded in 1995, was not successful until 1999, when a major outbreak of computer virus raised public’s consciousness on antivirus security. The boom made him a millionaire.

The story of his devotion and success attracted people. In 2009, Ahn appeared a famous TV talk show and told his stories which enthralled especially young generations in their twenties and thirties.

He could have just kept on his guaranteed career in medicine, still the most favorable and respected career in South Korean society, yet he followed his passion and managed to be a millionaire! And he sounded so mild and gentle on TV, unlike tons of self-styled successful talking heads. No wonder why they all fell in love with him.

Even though he kept his distance from politics, his support rate skyrocketed. After melting people’s hearts again by making a concession to Park Won-soon, who had way much lower support rate than Ahn, in a Seoul mayor by-election in 2011, he was considered to be a major presidential candidate.

Ahn himself, however, still kept his distance while words on the street said the opposite. It was reported that he was inviting experts on international relations, inter-Korean relations and economics to talk in order to prepare himself for the incoming presidential election of December 2012 since November 2011.

In July 2012, Ahn published his new book Thought. In South Korean politics, publishing a book right before an election is well considered to be a declaration of running. The subtitle, The Future Map of Korea We Want, already spoke a lot.

Yet he hardly acknowledged his running. Even in the book, he answers the question about running for president like this:

If there are many who agree with my thought, I have to move forward.

Forward where? Every news outlets reported that Ahn now de facto (NOTE: prepare yourself for thousands of de factos from now on) declared his presidential campaign but he never elaborated what his words meant.

It was almost a year after his first de facto moves for presidency when he officially announced his campaign in September, just three months away from the election:

As I announced in last July, I met many to listen to people’s opinions. […] So far people expressed their passion for political reform to me. Now I am running for the president.

The situation, however, was different than when Ahn was a supernova of South Korean politics a year ago. His fresh, clean personal image had worn out as numerous reports and allegations appear in front of the public.

Park Geun-hye was leading in the polls. Moon and Ahn had to do something in order to beat Park: unification, which has been our wish all the time.

Candidate unification has been always the issue, especially for the liberal side in South Korea, in presidential campaigns. Each party argues that her candidate is more competitive. Liberal supporters put pressure on both parties to decide for the greater cause of liberal triumph.

The Ahn’s case was one of the worst. Ahn’s camp just kept rejecting Moon’s proposals without presenting any alternatives. His support rate plummeted after the TV debate with Moon on candidate unification.

At the day of the election of the 18th President of Republic of Korea, Moon was the only candidate of the liberal side but Ahn never agreed to unify with Moon.

He just quit. Two days after the debate.

Ahn finally elected to the National Assembly in 2013 and joined the Minjoo Party. Two years later he left Minjoo Party to set up his own People’s Party but his days are now fading away as we see.

Why Ahn failed

About three years after the presidential election, a core member of Ahn camp published a memoir, which reveals inner workings of the disastrous campaign.

Keum Tae-seop, now a Minjoo Party lawmaker, pointed out Ahn’s indecisiveness and his dependency upon éminence grise in his 2015 book I Want the Winning Opposition. His description of the day of Ahn’s renouncement of candidacy is striking:

[The camp’s] policy chief Chang Ha-sung went down to Gwangju to encourage the campaign on the very day he announced to quit. Such an important decision was made behind the scenes and those who were on the official positions couldn’t express their opinion properly.

Keum, now a Minjoo party lawmaker

In an interview after the book provoked controversy, Keum said Ahn dismissed official route of communication and making decision:

Of course [a candidate] listens to various people in a campaign. However, an official organ has to be able to review their comments and to make decisions but it wasn’t the case [in the 2012 campaign]…

One of the Ahn’s worst decision during the campaign was his plan to reduce the total number of the members of the Assembly by a third, from three hundred to a hundred.

Widely criticized as a total novice’s populist approach to politics, the plan proved to be a major setback in his campaign. Even politics scholars in Ahn’s camp didn’t know about the plan nor who devised the plan.

Keum said in his book it took a year to finally unravel the mystery:

About a year after the campaign, I had a chance to sat together with Ahn to review the last year’s campaign. […] I raised an issue with Park Kyung-chul’s behavior and then Ahn told me that the speech [which revealed his mystery plan to reduce the number of lawmakers] was written by Park.

Park Kyung-chul, M.D., was a long time friend of Ahn. Park intervened in numerous cases during the campaign, especially a discussion with the Moon’s camp on candidate unification, which Ahn never discussed with the camp officials, albeit Park has no official position in the camp, Keum said.

huh, reminds me of someone…

Keum is not the only one who criticized Ahn for his lack of respect to organizational system. One of Ahn the lawmaker’s aide left a damning comment about Ahn on his Facebook page after he quit in February 2016.

“I tried to fix the internal issues but it wouldn’t be fixed. He always ends up shuffling some personnel without establishing a system within,” the aide told Joongang Ilbo.

Striking Similarities

Ahn and Ban have some striking similarities. Both are/were so popular among the possible candidates because they were successful in their careers which were definitely not politics.

Politicophobia is strong in South Korea. The term politician often conveys, as in English, a disparaging tone. Many talented or famed figures balk at the idea of entering politics due to concerns that it might ruin their public images.

Yet people here are obsessed with politics. When you take a taxi, a driver won’t shut up talking about politics if you’re Korean. You can easily hear a debate, or quarrel sometimes, on politics in a pub or a samkyupsal place.

Newcomers like Ban and Ahn in South Korean politics may enjoy some popularity due to their relatively fresh and clean image for the time being but eventually it will run out.

As Ban moves forward to possible by-election for president, his political opponents and the media will dig up more about his past and background.

South Korean media already welcomed Ban’s de facto announcement of running for presidency with a bribery allegation last year. U.S. prosecutors bid a farewell the outgoing UN secretary general by charging his brother and nephew over a foreign-bribery case.

Tantalizing is another feature Ahn and Ban share. Ban has stated everything about running for president but the official announcement yet—several de factos but none official. Ahn had done the same until three months before the 2012 election.

“I have been musing about how and where I will dedicate myself,” Ban said in his first de facto declaration of running for president. “I will determine [whether to run for the presidency] after I meet citizens from various walks of life and listen to their opinions. What is most important is citizens’ thoughts.”

Ban, with President Park

Ban repeated himself in what can be called the second de facto announcement when he finally came back in South Korea on January 12th:

I have long said that I would have opportunities to solicit various opinions from citizens upon my return home, and I will start having such opportunities from tomorrow onward. And then, I will, with a humble heart, make a decision without any pursuit of personal gains. It will not take a long time for me to make that decision.

“Officially speaking, I haven’t announced running for president yet,” Ban begins his answer with the disclaimer when Joongang Ilbo asks if he can perform well as the ROK president.

Yet he sounds so confident when he argues that ROK sovereign ratings, which has plummeted, will be upgraded as soon as “an opportunity arises for me to earn people’s confidence” because “every leaders around the world knows my face and name” due to his ten year term as the UN secretary general.

Not the same though

Ban, however is not the same with Ahn. While Ahn was reluctant to express his ambition of power, partly because of his indecisiveness but also partly because he took care of his personal image.

It is still a mystery why Ban hasn’t officially announced his running for president while displaying surprisingly strong confident in himself as the next president in the recent interviews with major ROK news outlets.

Right after his comeback, Ban has been storming off the whole nation without weekend. The press calls his move as ‘half and half,’ part liberal and part conservative. (In Korean, Ban’s surname also means ‘half.’) With the conservative unprecedentedly shrunken by the Choi Soon-sil scandal, Ban has to gain some support from the left to become the master of the Blue House.

On Sunday, he visited ROK Navy 2nd fleet HQ in Pyeongtaek to view the remains of ROKS Cheonan, which usually considered to be a conservative move and planned to visit Jindo to pay condolences to Sewol victims two days later, which considered to be a liberal move. He even styled himself as “a liberal conservative” in the recent interview.

Unlike Ahn, who seemed to have never understood how a political organization runs, Ban devoted himself over forty years in bureaucracies—ROK government and the UN. He probably has more respects for an official process of making decision than Ahn does.

There is, however, the last and the critical similarity between Ahn and Ban: ambiguity in their political vision. Just like Ahn’s book, Ban’s statements contain all the well-meaning words but hardly tell us the details.

His political leadership is yet to be proven. He’s been trying to win supports from both side so far but soon he will have to choose which side to fail. What if, for example, those hardcore conservatives take issue with Ban over his support for LGBT during his secretaryship, which is one of the things he’s so proud of himself?

That’s when the real decision is made.

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