- The Korean Presidents: Leadership for Nation Building
When the Korean peninsula emerged from the clutches of the Japanese Empire in 1945, partitioned on the 38th parallel by the United States and the U.S.S.R., and psychologically and materially damaged by the Great East Asian War, there seemed little hope for this medium-sized Asian country. This dire predicament was exacerbated by the internecine destruction wrought by the Korean War, just five years later. In short, the overall prospects for Korea were bleak, especially for the southern section, which lacked both industry and natural resources, in contrast to its northern counterpart. And yet half a century on, while North Korea’s fortunes have plummeted, South Korea has unequivocally entered the ranks of the advanced nations, now boasting the world’s eleventh largest economy. How was such a dramatic turnaround achieved?
Choong-Nam Kim identifies the quality of South Korean leadership as a critical factor in the successful socio-economic evolution of the Republic of Korea (ROK). He recounts South Korea’s incredible story of “rags to riches”’ from the perspective of its prominent, but oftentimes controversial, executive leaders. This involves a detailed account of national building in all its political, economic, and cultural dimensions. But the book is far more than just another narrative of how the “miracle on the Han” was realized. Tapping into theories of leadership, Kim constructs an analytical framework that he subsequently employs to assess the efficacy of each presidency from Syngman Rhee to Roh Moo Hyun. In the introduction, he identifies four general types of leadership—inactive, operational, frustrated, and effective—and their key characteristics (p. 19). After providing the necessary historical background, seven chapters are assigned to a comparative study of each of the Republic’s presidents. These chapters are divided into a historical narrative-cum-political analysis, followed by the direct application of the framework. In the conclusion he advances [End Page 188] the following criteria to evaluate leadership for national building: vision, agenda setting, appointments, managerial skill, crisis management, commitment, integrity, and net achievement (p. 389). The analysis is finally drawn together in a set of eight “lessons” for effective leadership in nationbuilding.
The author puts forward a strong case for the power of leadership, positing that “During periods of crisis and historical change, the quality of a nation’s leaders can prove decisive” (p. 397). In this respect the role of the ROK’s much-maligned executives has been underestimated. This, he contends, is because their achievements (or deficiencies) have been judged by the wrong criteria. Instead, Kim argues their performance must be evaluated in the context of the prevailing historical, domestic, national, and international conditions of the time. Here we must resist the temptation of retroactively projecting present preoccupations with democratic governance, accountability, and human rights onto the Korea of the 1940s–1970s. We must guard against the dual dangers of historical hindsight and (Western) ethnocentrism. Kim notes that “Such a perspective pays little attention to the security dilemma and economic poverty the Korean people experienced” (p. xi). Furthermore, it risks “falling into a praise-and-blame approach to history, which judges people and nations of the past by standards they themselves did not accept or regard as appropriate” (p. xii).
A contentious element of this argument is that while democracy may well be a fine form of governance, it is a luxury only to be enjoyed if economic and security considerations permit. Before democracy can be instituted in a war-wracked and undeveloped nation, the state must be internally and externally secure and the economy must be capable of meeting the needs of its populace. Even a cursory examination of former colonies in Africa (or contemporary Iraq and Afghanistan) provides ample evidence to demonstrate that attempting this process in reverse order has proved a chronically unsuccessful model. This was a notion that was well understood by the first Korean presidents. For an undeveloped/developing county to succeed in rapid modernization a (soft) authoritarian leadership may be the optimum...