[Column] The fruits of trust don’t ripen overnight

입력 2023. 2. 8. 20:05
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President Yoon must embrace the other half of the people and communicate with them to convince them.

Chung Un-chanThe author, a former prime minister and former president of Seoul National University, is the chairman of the Korea Institute for Shared Growth.

Our economy is in crisis. It suffered the largest-ever trade deficit in the first month of 2023 primarily due to slowed exports — more precisely, due to the underperformance of semiconductors, which led Korea’s exports. Soaring international energy prices also fueled the economic crisis. In the meantime, domestic political battles are going to the extreme. Instead of showing unity in the face of a deepening crisis, politicians are engrossed in internal battles. That’s a shameful portrait of Korea today.

Under dire circumstances, President Yoon Suk Yeol made a remarkable achievement for the economy. In a state visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in January, he received a pledge of $30 billion in investment from the Middle East country. Though the pledge was made on the MOU level, I am convinced that the UAE will keep its promise. “We decided to invest in Korea because of our trust in the country that keeps its promises under any circumstances,” said UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed bin Al-Nahyan.

It is not easy to abide by an international deal — whether it be verbal or written — as each country’s national interests are at stake. But I would trust the sincerity of the remarks from the UAE president even though I — and a great number of other Koreans — don’t trust words from our politicians. Mutual trust cannot be built overnight. It calls for consistent effort over a long period of time. That’s a valuable lesson from the investment deal with the UAE.

Korea’s close relationship with the elective monarchy in the Middle East dates back to the end of 2009, when President Lee Myung-bak visited the country and helped win the bid for the construction of the Barakah nuclear plant over France. At that time, some pundits wondered why the government should send special forces to the UAE to help train its military in return for winning the contract. But Lee pressed ahead with it based on his confidence on the competitiveness of our reactor technology and the need for the country to advance into the Middle East. The gutsy entrepreneurship the president learned from the late Chung Ju-jung — the legendary founder of Hyundai Group — while Lee was working for Chung in the 1960s and 70s may have played a part in the successful bidding.

The Park Geun-hye administration upgraded bilateral relations by striking a military logistics support agreement (MLSA) with the UAE in 2013. Former President Moon Jae-in attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Barakah 1 reactor in 2018 in the UAE despite controversy over his nuclear phase-out policy back home. Moon simply didn’t care about the contradiction. All the persistent trust building led to the $30-billion investment pledge from the UAE president. Looking back further, the achievement was possible thanks to all the tears and sweat from tens of thousands of construction workers in the Middle East to help develop its economy and ours.

What we see today can come from what we do today. But it also comes from an accumulation of what we did before — and it foreshows what will happen in the future. There lies the second lesson for the current Yoon administration. The government must realize how important it is to keep its promises to the people if it wants to earn their trust, just like in the global theater.

In a liberal democracy, a government commissioned to create the society its people want has the responsibility to realize its promises to them. The people here refer to a wide cross-section of our society — in other words, not only the people who voted for the president but also those who didn’t. Unfortunately, our governments showed the tendency to focus on their supporters to protect their own political interests. The governments — conservative or liberal — adhered to their political dogma rather than seeking a balance and harmony with others. That’s why past governments could only get trust from half the population.

Many people worry that the Yoon administration could take the same path. Yoon must take a more open and transparent approach to running the government based on the fairness and common sense he championed as a presidential candidate. He must embrace the other half of the people and communicate with them to convince them. That’s a basic qualification as a democratic government. The road to a country where all citizens are happy and live well is not that far away. Yoon can find the way if he carefully listens to what people say.

I would like to relay what Dr. Frank Schofield (1889-1970) — often called the 34th member of the 33 activists who signed the Korean declaration of independence from Japan during the March 1 Movement of 1919 — always used to say. “Be honest. Treat the weak with benevolence just like a dove and treat the strong with sternness just like a tiger,” pleaded the Canadian veterinarian and missionary deeply involved in the independence movement a century ago.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng daily staff.

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