[Outlook]A new year for the president

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[Outlook]A new year for the president

Over the Lunar New Year holiday I went to my hometown, Yangju, Gyeonggi. While travelling to and fro and during my stay, I discussed various issues with my four older brothers.

I remembered that last year, the Lunar New Year fell in early February, when the presidential transition team’s operation was in its final phase. It was preparing for the inauguration.

At the time, my brothers didn’t hide their high expectations for the new president. All four had seen the Cheonggye Stream one or more times. They commended what Lee Myung-bak did as Seoul mayor, like designating bus lanes to ease traffic congestion.

As far as my brothers were concerned, Mayor Lee was a mixture of former President Park Chung Hee and deceased Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung. Lee could understand the hardships faced by low-income families while carrying out plans and policies with tremendous force and speed, my brothers believed.

It was natural for them to have high expectations for the soon-to-be-launched Lee administration. They were against me because I was critical of Lee’s way of handling city affairs when he was mayor.

But it was different this year. None of my brothers talked about President Lee or his administration. We only discussed the economic crisis, the deaths by fire in Yongsan and my the difficulty their children were having finding jobs.

One or two brothers talked about Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony. They said Americans knew how to produce a masterpiece and shared their views about how Obama’s economic policies will impact our economy.

Driving from Yangju to Seoul on the Dongbu Expressway, I thought more seriously about the discrepancy between former Mayor Lee and President Lee. City affairs and state affairs can be handled in similar ways but there are also differences.

For instance, housing issues are key in Seoul City’s affairs. Transport, environment and education are at the top of the agenda. As former CEO of a construction company, former Mayor Lee displayed his competence in such projects as the restoration of Cheonggye Stream, the reform of the transport system and building the Seoul Forest.

Meanwhile, when governing the entire country, other issues are more important. Foreign affairs, national security policies and an economic policy are prioritized, followed by social and welfare policies.

The biggest difference between handling city affairs and state affairs is that state issues allow higher possibilities for different policies to clash.

National interest in a foreign policy might infringe on human rights, which are guaranteed in the Constitution. Efficiency in an economic policy may be at odds with a social policy.

Thus, when governing an entire country, an ability to adjust policies and embrace people with opposing views is important. While a mayor is an administrator, the president is an administrator and politician at the same time.

If I may use economic terms, a city official should pursue an economy of scale, while a national administration pursues an economy of scope. An economy of scale mass-produces a small number of goods to increase profits, while an economy of scope produces a small amount of many goods and tries to reduce production costs by diversifying goods and businesses.

While a city office should pursue an economy of scale to maximize efficiency in a few sectors, such as housing and transport, a national administration should pursue an economy of scope and take into consideration and adjust numerous policies from national defense to human rights.

For the past year, the Lee administration has pursued an economy of scale. It has focused on civil engineering projects, such as the cross-country waterway or the four rivers maintenance project, and a neo-liberal policy to increase the market’s efficiency.

The problem is that in the era of globalization, politics that covers various items is more important than politics that focuses on a few chosen issues. Acknowledging people with different viewpoints and the importance of communication are primary tasks for the Lee administration.

When I looked out the car window as I turned off the Dongbu Expressway onto the highway on the north side of the Han, the river was thawing slowly.

In February, the Lee administration must close the past year and start a new one. What’s most important for President Lee is to realize the difference between city affairs and state affairs and govern the country as a president rather than as a mayor.



*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Ho-ki
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