[Outlook]Deciding Lee’s legacy

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[Outlook]Deciding Lee’s legacy

The Lee Myung-bak administration plods along when it should be forcefully marching forward, backed by a landslide victory in the presidential election. It has already experienced discord over the composition of the cabinet and the presidential office. Now it is failing in its handling of the former administration’s personnel, who is tainted by ideology.
The new administration is also busy with the Grand National Party’s nominations for legislative elections. Even though the elections, which are only a month away, are a burden in that they come so soon after Lee took office, the new administration doesn’t seem to be tackling its tasks as it should.
In some ways, it is a blessing that the local elections fall so soon after a presidential election, which happens only once every 20 years. It depends on the election results, but if the ruling party secures a majority of the National Assembly, as predicted by most, it won’t have many political obstacles in the coming four years.
Since the 1980s when a single-term presidency began, Korea has had five presidents. Every one of them must have wanted to make significant achievements while they were in office.
But from a long-term perspective, only a few successes are worth historical evaluation. They are the Chun Doo Hwan administration’s stabilization of consumer prices; the Kim Young-sam administration’s dismantling of Hanahoe, a powerful fraternity of military officers; and the Kim Dae-jung administration’s Sunshine Policy.
These days, people fret over 3 percent inflation, but it is not high by any standards. The way for such low inflation was paved by the Chun Doo Hwan administration. Difficult economic terms were used in training camps for reserve troops or monthly meetings of neighbors to persuade the people of the importance of stabilizing prices. The Chun administration used to buy rice from farmers during the harvest season and sell it at fixed prices throughout the year. This was done to stabilize the rice market.
As a result, now the yearly inflation target is 2 to 3 percent. The Chun administration deserves credit for ending the high inflation that haunted the country since it earned independence.
By dismantling Hanahoe, the Kim Young-sam administration blocked the 30-year-old route for the military’s participation in politics and thus eliminated the possibility and fear of a military coup and military dictatorship.
If the Kim Dae-jung administration had taken office before Kim Young-sam did, Kim Dae-jung wouldn’t have been able to carry out the same achievements because he was suspected or misunderstood for his ideologies.
The Kim Dae-jung administration’s Sunshine Policy still remains controversial, but it has certainly changed South Koreans’ view and attitude towards North Korea. Although the Lee Myung-bak administration plans to modify the North Korea policy, many believe humanitarian aid must be provided to North Korea in any case. The Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tourism sites are also considered irreversible.
President Lee must be planning achievements as well. As a presidential candidate, he presented a “747 pledge,” which means he will achieve 7 percent growth, $40,000 national per capita income and making Korea one of the world’s seven most powerful economies. He also pledged to build a cross-country canal. However, it is doubtful whether these will be enough to earn Lee the praise of future generations. To achieve high growth and to become a powerful economy are similar to the Park Chung Hee administration’s goals. Even if the government pushes to build a cross-country canal, it is doubtful it will have as much historical meaning as the Gyeongbu Expressway connecting Seoul and Busan.
What challenging task in this era might earn recognition in the future? The answer is reforming the national pension system. The pension system will affect not only the people living these days but also future generations.
Our society is becoming an aging society. The core problem in an aging society is how to support senior citizens while having future generations bear a smaller burden.
Under the current system, if a person with a regular job pays monthly contributions for several decades, he will receive a little bit more than 1 million won ($1,100) per month after retirement. The pension fund will run a deficit within 30 years and dry up within 50 years. As long as people feel insecure about their lives after retirement, we can never say our country is an advanced one.
To prioritize this issue and to find resolutions to prepare for the future are the most important tasks given to the incumbent administration. Success in this will surely earn Lee a positive evaluation when judged by history.

*The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Tae-wook
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