Lee Myung-bak in Trouble
By Tong Kim
It's hard nowadays to find any good news for President Lee Myung-bak. Having just returned from a summit visit to China he now faces a political crisis at home. Tens of thousands of people rallied Saturday following week long nightly candlelit vigils to protest the opening of the beef market to US imports. Opposition parties stand together; demanding renegotiation of the deal, while the press from both the left and right continues its harsh criticism of the Lee government's performance during its first three months.
The government has failed to effectively address public concerns over the safety of U.S. beef. Its failure may be attributed to its callous bureaucratic way of handling the issue at the beginning. The public has refused to accept the president's apology or to listen to the government's arguments proclaiming the safety of U.S. beef.
It wasn't the sovereignty issue of food inspection or anti-American sentiments that fed the spread of these candlelit vigils. Nor was it the credibility of beef safety. What it is that has angered these demonstrators who are becoming more anti-government than anti-U.S. beef is the opinion that the government negotiated a bad deal at the expense of its people.
While the beef issue was a catalyst for the current crisis, it could only have been a red herring. There are a multitude of reasons that led to this unfortunate situation. Chief among them is probably the people's disappointment with the unfulfilled promises of the new government ― respecting the people and cutting down living costs for those in the low-income bracket by 30 percent.
The people are not better off today than under the previous government. Many people say they have not seen President Lee do anything noticeably better than his predecessor. Hikes in oil prices are a worldwide phenomenon beyond the government's control, but planning for the hikes is certainly the government's responsibility.
The trucking industry is threatening to go on strike, while most fishing boats stopped operating due to the high price of diesel oil. Small business operators are struggling to stay afloat. How the economy is affecting people's livelihood must matter most now. All this is happening on top of the latest release of onerous economic indicators and projections ― rising price index, current account deficits, decline in investment and lower growth projections.
Even before the outbreak of the mad cow issue, the public was turned off by President Lee's choice of people for some cabinet and Blue House positions. There were concerns that the government's growth-oriented policy would support big corporations at the expense of labor, disregarding balanced distribution in a country that is already plagued by an economic, educational and social divide.
Controversies over the English language public education plan and the cross- country waterway project ― which the government now says would only better the water quality of existing rivers and improve the passage of vessels ― still feeds a potential confrontation with the people. Lee seems stubborn regarding the cannel project, and the people are adamant.
Neo-liberalism has produced more than five million legally discriminated ``irregular workers" in Korea. These workers perform the same duties as regular workers but get much less pay, no job security and little fringe benefits. In a free market economy, there are limits to what the government can do.
President Lee's approval rate has plummeted to a record low of 25 percent. Last December he was elected with a margin of over 5 million votes, capturing 48 percent of the votes cast in a 4-way race. However, only 62 percent of eligible voters participated in the election. Many believe that Lee won his presidency largely because of his predecessor's failures and the general expectation that Lee would be able to turn the economy around.
Lee's selling points were ``economy," ``CEO experience," ``pragmatic policy," ``deed rather than word," and ``people's era." The economy is not something anyone or any government can turn around in three months. Any sound economic plan to succeed beyond a short-term remedy would take much longer ― often years depending on the state of conditions at the time of undertaking.
As a candidate, Lee's CEO experience was an asset, but his CEO leadership style is now being assailed as unsuitable for that of a president. His cabinet ministers and Blue House staffers are seen as irresponsible, incompetent or even arrogant. His pragmatic policy ― that is supposed to be ideology-free ― is yet to show signs of success. His pledge for ``respect and service to the people" has lost its meaning with many supporters turning their backs on him.
Even Lee's political allies fault the president's impatience over a visible achievement of some kind. They want their president to show more political leadership and spend more of his time and energy on big issues rather than issuing detailed instructions or asking sharp questions on specific issues during meetings with his subordinates.
His critics have rushed to characterize the Lee government as ``neo-liberal authoritarian" after watching the government's handling of anti-government demonstrations. The opposition United Democratic Party has stalled a vote on the ratification of the FTA with the United States, which the government pushed hard for during the last session of the 17th-term National Assembly.
Support for the major opposition party is an inverse function of the performance of the government and its party. During the previous administration, the opposition Grand National Party's high support rating was largely a reflection of disapproval of Roh Moo-hyun. Likewise, the more mistakes the Lee government makes, the more support is likely to be given to the opposition party.
The Lee government is only three months old, the new National Assembly begins its four-year term just this month. There will be no national elections in which the people can register their disapproval for their national government. The people elected Lee as their president and they gave a majority of seats to the governing Grand National Party in the national legislature. The people have to live with the choices they made. That's democracy.
To regain support of the people, President Lee and his government will have to listen to them. Whenever the government fails, the people may take to the streets again. There are ways to fix the current problems. If the president fails to lead his government, he cannot lead the people. It's only the beginning. The Republic of Korea cannot afford to have a failing government. Do you agree?
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.