[Outlook]Lee Hoi-chang’s political veneerThis happened recently. Former President Kim Young-sam met with a few professors. They apparently had a debate on Korea’s modern political history. The debate was on whether the merging of the Democratic Justice Party, the Unification Democratic Party and the Republican Party in 1990 was an absorption (in which the forces advocating industrialization absorbed forces advocating democratization) or an integration of the two.
At the end of the debate, Kim made a concluding remark that made his aides wince: “I integrated the three parties because I wanted to become president.”
Former Grand National Party Chairman Lee Hoi-chang gave the party its new name and ran as its presidential candidate twice. In essence, Lee has not acted much differently from Kim by bolting from the party to run for president. Lee’s claims that the present Grand National candidate Lee Myung-bak is not trustworthy or that his North Korea policy is ambiguous are only cover to assuage public anger over his decision to bolt and go back on his promise to retire from politics for good. The reason that he has decided to run for president despite the harsh criticism he anticipated was because he wanted to become president.
It is often said in Korea that political leaders are decided on by the heavens. This is not to say that some supernatural power decides who becomes king or president. It is to say that no matter how talented and capable one is, one cannot be president if it is not in accord with the era’s zeitgeist. In this sense, Lee Hoi-chang is a most unlucky presidential candidate. He is a candidate who has tripped on the threshold of the presidency in the past. Yet it must be acknowledged that he has something now he did not have in 1997 or 2002.
Lee’s recent actions show that his political intuition has become quite canny. He has publicly criticized candidates from the GNP primary from time to time to build up the legitimacy of his own candidacy. Yet he showed patience after Lee Myung-bak was chosen as the party candidate, striking only after Lee dropped in the polls due to various allegations. When things didn’t move as fast as he expected, he showed great insight by choosing the right time to announce his candidacy. The message his candidacy insinuates, the countdown by his aides, his temporary withdrawal from the public view and the grand announcement of candidacy ― all were perfectly timed to draw public attention. Such finesse was hard to find in Lee in the past.
The Lee Hoi-chang of the past was always self-restrained and gave the impression of being a square. The only dramatic gesture the Lee of the past ever made was a deep bow he made after he was chosen as the GNP candidate in the May 2002 primary. This was at a time the whole nation had become infatuated with a new political face, Roh Moo-hyun.
The only time the Lee of the past showed tears in public was when he announced his retirement from politics after his defeat in 2002.
The new Lee, however, choked with emotion when he talked about leaving the party he helped create during his announcement to run for president. The announcement speech itself was full of emotional rhetoric.
After announcing his candidacy, he visited households in need and emphasized that politicians needed to understand the situation of the socially weak and that his politics would be compassionate. Mr. Lee seems to have more success in drawing people to him these days. He has changed his prim, lofty ways for a humbler approach. In short, Mr. Lee has finally become a politician. This is a far cry from the man who refused to budge in face of allegations that his son dodged military service and criticism that he lived in a luxurious three-story house unfit for a politician, claiming that there was nothing “legally wrong” there. What has come over the proud aristocratic Lee Hoi-chang who had seemed to care more about the law than public sentiments?
It is somewhat odd that support for Lee is exceptionally high in the Chungcheong provinces. He lost in the last two presidential elections partly due to low support in those provinces on election day. In 1997, Chungcheong favored Kim Dae-jung over Lee because he had joined hands with the region’s most prominent politician, Kim Jong-pil.
In 2002, the province once again forsook Lee to vote for Roh Moo-hyun who promises to move the capital city to the Chungcheong area. It is ironic that Lee’s strongest support base today is Chungcheong.
At this pace, he might well rise to become the champion that Chungcheong has been seeking in this year’s race.
Had Lee shown such political savvy and acquired such support from the Chungcheong provinces before, he could have won at least one of the last two presidential elections. What was missing then is missing no more.
Can Lee fulfill his dream this time? It won’t be easy. He might have acquired many virtues, but his candidacy has lost one very important thing ― justification.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Du-woo