Korea's international stature has never been higher. Only a day after Korea was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the first time in 15 years, Songdo in Incheon defeated five other cities around the world to accommodate the secretariat of the UN Green Climate Fund.
Korea became an official member of the UN in 1991, 43 years after it was established as a republic. It took the country so long to join because the two Koreas have been divided since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire. Only 21 years later, a Korean is UN secretary-general and the nation a non-permanent member of the Security Council for the second time.
The GCF is an international organization with 190 member countries. The secretariat will initially have 500 staff, placing Songdo among the ranks of major cities like Washington D.C. (headquarters of the IMF, World Bank), New York (UN), Geneva (World Trade Organization) and Paris (OECD).
When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim, a Korean American, took the stage at a recent event in New York, U.S. President Barack Obama joked that Koreans rule the world.
Global credit rating agencies Moody's, S&P and Fitch have all recently raised Korea's sovereign credit rating, with Fitch giving it a higher rating than Japan. When the Asian financial crisis hit Korea in late 1997, they all downgraded Korea's credit to junk bond status, some by as much as 10 notches. At that time, Japan's sovereign credit rating was AAA, which is the top level.
It seems only yesterday that Korean government officials and representatives of major Korean businesses traveled to the IMF's and World Bank's headquarters and to Wall Street during the Asian financial crisis to borrow money. At that time, electronics products made by Samsung and LG were hard to find in U.S. stores which preferred Japanese brands such as Sony and Panasonic. Hyundai cars were the butt of jokes for their cheap quality, while Toyota's Lexus were dominating premium car sales in the U.S.
But when I went to an electronics shop near Washington three years ago and looked at a Sony TV on display, one employee told me that Samsung and LG products are far more popular. Hyundais, too, are no longer seen as lemons in the U.S.
This is how much Korea's stature has risen in the international community over the last few years. In fact, Korea has become the envy of many other countries. People listen to what Korea has to say at major international conferences and no one belittles Korea any more.
One thing I am think about often ahead of the presidential election is whether candidates Park Geun-hye, Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo have what it takes to lead this country. Most news coverage of these candidates focuses on their past: Park's as the daughter of ex-President Park Chung-hee, Moon's role under late President Roh Moo-hyun and Ahn's private affairs.
There is nothing wrong with that. It is part of the process of vetting the candidates. But what is missing is any attempt to check the ability of the candidates to lead the new Korea. The three candidates have largely themselves to blame for this problem, since none of them have bothered to discuss it. The pledges they have made to voters sound eerily similar and boil down to how many benefits they will give them courtesy of taxpayers' money.
All three seem to agree that Korea will face tough times during the next five years. In that case, solutions to these problems should be the focus of their campaign. But none of them are willing to talk about it. Korea has come a long way in the last 64 years. But I doubt whether Park, Moon and Ahn have it in them to take us further.
By Park Doo-sik from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk