[Viewpoint] Time ticking on greatness for Lee
President Lee Myung-bak is one of the most industrious people in Korea. He gets up at 5 a.m. every morning and begins his day by reading newspapers. He thoroughly covers the articles and columns in the major dailies.
So when he comes to work at his office in the Blue House at 7:50 am, and is provided with newspaper clipping, he needs not read them again.
He makes sure he watches television news shows at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. and personally calls his secretaries and ministers when he has questions. So the officials and policy makers are always on heir toes.
Whenever he has several minutes to spare during his tight schedule, he reviews speeches and reports. Every minute counts.
Lee believes that without incredible effort the five-year term limit provides too short a time to make an outstanding difference. Lee stands in comparison to former president Roh Moo-hyun, who sometimes began day in the afternoon after staying up late the night before.
President Lee is increasingly pressured to leave memorable achievements. The burden became clear when he attended the funeral of former president Roh and visited former president Kim Dae-jung on his sickbed.
Unlike his two predecessors, President Lee has hardly any group of unflinching supporters. He won the presidential election by appealing to the moderate independent voters with his enviable of history of having become CEO of the Hyundai Construction in his 30s and the accomplishment of refurbishing the Cheonggye Stream while serving as the mayor of Seoul.
But while those results are significant, they are not national in character. They can easily be forgotten. This must be a scenario that gets under Lee’s skin.
President Lee painfully accepted that moderates who voted for him in the presidential election have since retracted their support. So he is now advocating pro-working class, moderate pragmatism as his slogans.
Even in the face of criticism from the right, the president is undeterred. The Lee Administration is pursuing a “pay back after employment” student loan system, which was originally a policy backed by the Democratic Labor Party.
Some opinion polls show President Lee’s approval rating has risen to 40%, a level required for stable state administration. For now, the new line seems to be working.
Who would oppose the “welfare New Deal” to save the middle class and the cash aid to the needy citizens? The point is that people will think differently once basic needs are met.
People will demand m?ore. The public is capricious by nature, and the whimsical sentiment is a challenge for President Lee.
In order to be remembered with respect after retirement, President Lee needs to have a discussion about history extending beyond approval rating. That’s how he will find his answer.
For starters, he needs to consider promoting inter-Korean reconciliation and ending regional antagonism, the two goals that had been established by former president Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun but have regressed under lee.
It’s about time he turns discords and division into reconciliation and prosperity for all. They are the core of true pragmatic centrism.
Fortunately, President Lee has the best possible tools to work with. He is a flexible pragmatist, free from ideology. When President Lee, a Yeongnam native supported by the Yeongnam people, embraces the Honam region, the effect is more dramatic and powerful than President Roh, a Yeongnam native supported by the Honam people.
In fact, when Mr. Lee was the chairman of Hyundai Construction, he promoted many Honam natives to executive positions and has expressed friendly feelings toward the region.
What he needs to pay special attention to is the power mechanism within government organizations favoring those with regional affiliation with the president.
The CEO-turned-president can be more energetic and less political when he pursues inter-Korean reconciliation than President Kim Dae-jung, who had been troubled with the “red complex.”
The immediate tasks of refining the approach to Pyongyang after the release of the Hyundai Asan worker and the Cabinet overhaul are very important.
The president needs to propose resuming the Mount Kumgang and Kaeseong tourism projects as well as family reunions and humanitarian aid of rice and fertilizers. As long as the South and the North exchange something, Pyongyang’s tactic of “talking with the U.S., isolating the South” would not be possible.
With next year’s local elections in mind, it’s a bad idea to use a political approach of favoring a certain region in the cabinet reshuffle.
Lee needs to make appointments based on fundamental values regardless of political interests so that regionalism no longer has a place in the government.
A politician is working for the next election, but a statesman is thinking for the next generation.
If President Lee successfully ends regional antagonism and attains inter-Korean reconciliation, he would be remembered as the president of the people. He made clear of his will to transcend personal interests donating most of his assets.
Now, he should have a sincere talk with history and find resolve. Nowadays, the European Union is accelerating the grand project of unifying Europe, and the relationship between China and Taiwan is improving rapidly.
The Korean Peninsula is the only place left with a confrontational structure, and even the South is divided with regionalism. President Lee does not have much time left.
*The writer is director of the strategy planning bureau of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Ha-kyung