By Jun Ji-hye
Is it right to award a medal to one's self to acclaim one's own contribution?
The question has arisen after President Lee Myung-bak decided to award himself and first lady Kim Yoon-ok the Grand Order of Mugunghwa, the highest decoration awarded by the government.
Lee made the decision at a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, about two weeks ahead of President-elect's Park Geun-hye's inauguration.
Under the law, the incumbent president is the only one authorized to award the medal. That is why presidents award themselves the 50 million won ($46,000) worth of gold and jeweled medals.
Since the medal was introduced in August 1949, all previous presidents ― from Syngman Rhee to Roh Moo-hyun have received it either at their inauguration or before retirement, which has made the public take it for granted.
However, controversy arose for Lee's decision as he has been already criticized for issuing special pardons for close aides at the end of his administration. Despite Park and the public's head-on criticism, Lee pushed ahead his plans claiming it was the sole discretion of a president.
The main opposition Democratic United Party has spoken against Lee's decision.
The argument has brought about skepticism about the nation's unique tradition, questioning appropriateness of self-eulogization.
"Legally, there's no problem with that and such a thing has conventionally happened before. However, laws needs to be reformed in accordance with time and situation," said Chung Goon-gi, a professor at the Journalism and Media Department of Kyonggi University.
Chung said President Lee could have been wiser so that he could reject the customary practice or let the next president recognize his contributions and make the decision.
"Lee failed to understand the national psyche amid harsh economic realities," he said.
The professor stressed that the tradition needs to be changed as a more significant thing is the people's assessment, not the expensive medal itself that is financed by taxpayers.
"I think the public has started to agree with such criticism, so I expect President-elect Park would reject to receive it in her administration," he said.
The Grand Order of Mugunghwa can be given to those who are serving or have previously served as head of state as well as to their spouse.
Sixty-eight, including all former Korean presidents and some of their wives as well as other leaders of the nation's allies, have received the medal since its adoption.
The latest award was given in November last year to Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates.