Challenges for Lee Government
By Tong Kim
In the midst of great expectations and some apprehensions the new Lee Myung-bak government will be inaugurated on the 25th of this month to begin an ``era of people's success.'' I join all well-wishers, including those in the U.S. Congress who recently passed a congratulatory resolution on Lee's election, in supporting the incoming administration of the Republic of Korea.
Before taking over the reigns of rule, the president-elect and his transition team have been working very hard on an ambitious agenda. The assessment of their effort so far fares generally well but not without some blunders.
According to one poll cited by an editorial in the Chosun Ilbo last week published under the title of ``Fatigue With New Government Before It Starts,'' Lee's approval rate has fallen to 60 percent from 70 percent since his election, while the transition team received a 50 percent approval rate for its job performance.
Perhaps such mixed results were caused by the dashing speed and excessive enthusiasm with which the transition team churned out a massive list of policy goals, all in the name of global competition, but often without spelling out how the goals would be achieved. In a way the transition team seemed to be working more like a campaign platform development team rather than a prudent transition team. Haste makes waste.
Yet to the transition team's credit, the next government will start as a functionally streamlined organization to achieve 192 specific policy objectives across the board under the heading of five major categories ― ``vitalized market economy, superb human resources, globalization, proactive welfare, and listening to the people.''
The new government's general direction appears to have been well conceived, but many of its plans and programs deserve a closer scrutiny especially in terms of available resources of funding, without with they cannot be carried out.
The issue of teaching English as part of compulsory public education is only one of several controversial issues that require a thorough re-evaluation. English education ought to be seen from utility and cost/benefit from a national perspective. Suppose all Koreans learn how to speak English. Will they all use their spoken English on their jobs?
It would be ridiculous if the government thinks it should teach its people how to pronounce the word ``orange'' correctly, as the transition team chairperson said the government should. Many Korean immigrants living in the United States who incorrectly pronounce ``orange'' have no problem communicating with Americans.
Another blunder on the part of the transition team was its premature (later retracted) announcement that the president-elect would cut cell phone charges by 20 percent and gas taxes by 10 percent in an effort to bring about a 30 percent reduction in the living costs for average people, effective even before his inauguration, as if Lee Myung-bak was still running for presidency.
The president-elect now says the 747 economic pledge ― for 7 percent growth, $40,000 per capita income and to join a group of the 7 most advanced nations ― is not for his job to finish. This is understandable in the sense that the pledge was not a very realistic goal to begin with. But he did not have to say that he made the pledge with the idea that his successor GNP government would carry it on. Who can assure that the GNP will succeed again in the next presidential election five years from now? It would have been wise for him to just say he would try his best to achieve that goal.
Among other issues, the new president's foreign policy ― especially toward North Korea and the United States ― catches my attention. Those who have followed what he has been saying on this subject can tell that his policy has evolved in nuance and conceptual substance and that it is still undergoing refinement to become a realistic and pragmatic policy that will work.
On December 20, the day after the election, Lee said: ``The (South Korean) government should help U.S.-North Korea talks to make successful progress.''
On January 14, he said: ``The development of ties between South Korea and the United States and those between the North and South will also help development between the North and the United States.''
On February 1, the president-elect said: ``If we have a bad relationship with the United States, there would be nothing we could do between the U.S. and the North. Our (good) relationship with the U.S. can contribute to normalization of relations between the U.S. and the North.''
Recently Lee also told the press that future inter-Korean economic cooperation would be carried out under ``four principles'' (conditions) ― if progress is made toward denuclearization, if it makes economic sense, if resources are available and if it is supported by public consensus, while he will allow continuation of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex and the Geumgang tourist project.
His ``denuclearization/opening 3000'' plan first seeks denuclearization, then opening of North Korea in order to increase North Korea's per capita income to $3,000 over a period of 10 years.
In his latest statement there is a subtle but important change in policy substance as a condition to help the North economically. His previous policy called for completion of denuclearization before economic cooperation would begin in an active manner. Now he says not denuclearization but ``progress in denuclearization'' might suffice for the primary condition for economic cooperation, a more realistic approach toward the resolution of the Korean nuclear issue.
He also suggested a constructive role of the EU to contribute to the process of denuclearization. In my view this is a non-starter, simply because the DPRK would not listen to EU or its socialist party cadre. North Korea does not even listen to China, which has far more influence than the EU members.
He and his advisors, seemingly driven from their not so pragmatic but ideologically conservative view, are trying to justify their North Korean policy of conditional engagement with the eventual goal of opening, and political and economic reform of the DPRK toward the standards of international practices. Both South Korea and the United States also want to see the North move toward improved human rights and behave more like a normal state.
This proposition is one of the few policy options the Perry North Korean policy review team rejected in 1999 for the reason that for such policy to succeed it would require DPRK cooperation. The DKPR has strongly resisted external pressure for opening because it believes this might lead to the undermining of its regime. It is doubtful the North would succumb to South Korean pressure even mixed with carrots.
President Lee Myung-back's team is yet to come up with a specific workable path that would be helpful to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons and transform itself. And they are yet to explore steps and measures to really contribute to denuclearization ``through closer allied cooperation with the United States.'' Otherwise, the six party talks might slip back to another long span of stalemate.
I would like to trust that the new government will do a good job in many policy areas, but I am somewhat concerned about his North Korean policy, which will be acceptable to the conservative constituents in the South, but will not work with the North no matter what the South's intentions are. What's your take?
Tong Kim is former senior interpreter at the U.S. State Department and now a research professor with Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org