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Dear Korean presidential candidates

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31.01.2017
By Stephen Costello

Dear Korean presidential candidates,

I write to you as an outsider who supports Korea, the US-Korea alliance, and our common effort to make progress on the big issues that confront us. The many experiences and values we share are not a little thing; they are the main thing. I am amazed at the clarity, determination and civic openness of your recent demonstrations. Our own demonstrations last week have been important for us, as well. Among other things, both have been attempts to reaffirm deeply held values, and to stand against backsliding in social progress.

Let's say a few things at the beginning. One president does not change bedrock values or real national interests. A look at the recent history of Korea and the US confirms this. We in the US have survived incompetent and corrupt presidents, and so have you. If our current president will not be able to help you much, that's unfortunate, but it's also not new. As for the similarities between Presidents ParkGeun-hye and Donald J. Trump (arguing about crowd size, for instance), we can put that aside for now.

Militarily, both of our governments have been focused on overblown threats from North Korea while refusing to return to credible and sincere talks. If you want to change this dynamic, you had better know a great deal about the issues, and consult with a wide range of experts.Regarding broader military issues, there are important decisions to make regarding force structure, equipment, regional and alliance roles, and of course, OpCon. You can't learn these things later.

Across the range of key issues you will have to address, very few will really be matters of left vs right or progressive vs conservative. You should address this fact now in your public discussions. Both right and left in Korea are emerging from difficult and tragic recent histories. Conservative leaders are still struggling to emerge from an identity tied to Chaebol-authoritarian capitalism, nostalgic anticommunism, and a fear-based, dependent view of national security. President Park has not helped much with this. Progressives are still trying to mend the internal war between Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun groups, started by Roh in 2003.

It makes sense that you and your fellow candidates must now find new language to talk about common goals and interests. One of the signs that you are serious about this election – which could be in April or early May – will be demonstrating that you can unite the public in ways that the last three presidents did not. Roh, Lee Myung-bak and Park, in important ways, were alldivisive. You cannot afford to continue this self-defeating trend. If you cannot authentically bring factions and power groups together, please find something else to do, and step away from this contest.

As you gear up to run as a candidate, you should have a serious, open, and long-term policy shop. In the best case, the parties will have the strongest policy organizations. Most importantly, you should base your candidacy on your program, not on yourself. This is an old dilemma, but right now in Korea it is urgent. Despite the fact that parties often align with individuals, you still have two main worldviews........

© The Korea Times