[Viewpoint] Earth to Lee: Where are you?

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[Viewpoint] Earth to Lee: Where are you?

Former President Roh Tae-woo confessed to reporters in a flight returning from an overseas trip that he always dreaded going home. Once he set foot on home soil, the splitting headache that is politics would afflict him once again. Roh, of course, had been mocked for being an expert in foreign policy and an amateur in local politics.

He wasn’t the only president to feel that way. All presidents loathe politics. Abroad, they are treated with the greatest respect and hospitality. At home, they must kowtow to politicians to gain their cooperation, and they are constantly judged. Politics is not about being overbearing, even when you’re the president. You must talk things out and compromise. Nobody likes a hard nut.

Yet few leaders want their authority challenged. An incompetent politician tends to be intractable, unwilling to yield and take responsibility for a compromise. Former Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil used to say the voice of the public is like that of a tiger. There is no authority that does not come with responsibility. The ruling Grand National Party has been poor in that area, and has been humbled by its crushing defeat in the latest nationwide elections.

President Lee Myung-bak has been saying that the politics is up to the party. He truly practiced the principle of separating party from government. That doesn’t mean he had no interest in politics and anyway he can’t, since anything a president does is a political act. His precious multibillion-dollar project to dredge and dam the country’s four river lines cannot move forward without political maneuvering. Tuesday’s elections, filling nearly 4,000 local positions, was a midterm evaluation of the president. Voters who selected opposition party candidates wanted to rein in this president. Within the Grand National Party, Lee loyalists comprise the mainstream and most of the GNP candidates in the local election came from this group. Former Public Administration Minister Lee Dal-gon waged an unsuccessful contest against Kim Doo-gwan, who served in the same post under President Roh Moo-hyun. Loyalty to the president was also reflected in the choice of candidates for the superintendent of education post in Seoul and Gyeonggi. Also, in some races more than one conservative candidate ran, splitting the conservative vote and losing disastrously to the opposition, which came together to back single candidates. The GNP election troops had to run about without a responsible commander.

A few days ago, I went to the Punch Bowl valley, near the Yanggu coast in Gangwon Province, which was a strategically important site during the Korean War. A statue of a soldier in the war museum there caught my eye. He had his back against a wall and was holding a book in his hand with a gun slung over his shoulder. The pose reminded me of the last scene from the 1958 war film “A Time To Love, A Time To Die.” Nothing is romantic about politics, but the ruling party was like a soldier too immersed in love to remember he is in a war zone, oblivious to his imminent tragic end. Politicians must know when to fight and when to shake hands. The GNP has been consumed with clamorous fights among its family members since President Lee became head of the house. The saying usually goes that the conservatives fall on corruption and the liberals on division within their ranks. But if the conservatives develop fissures as well, it is doomed. It was the opposition that aggressively sought to unite its forces. Chung Se-kyun, head of the Democratic Party, joined hands with his political rivals Sohn Hak-kyu and Chung Dong-young. They collaborated to present a single liberal candidate for the Gyeonggi governor’s post.

It is up to the president to unravel the knot. He must narrow the gap over the contentious four rivers and Sejong City projects. The president has not given a proper press conference since inauguration. He refused to mend the fence with in-party rival Park Geun-hye. His intractability even sent moderate DP leader Chung Se-kyun to join street protests. He domineered his people. He promised to be different after the by-election defeat, but nothing has changed. He cannot bulldoze ahead with the four rivers project as he did with the Cheonggye Stream in Seoul. Nothing can go ahead without an opportunity. And he may have wasted his last.

President Lee is extremely people-shy. He doesn’t appoint someone he does not know. He remains obstinately against seeking new talent. As a mayor of Seoul that approach may have been possible. But a national government is an entirely different institution.

The GNP has no better chance in the next election. Recent ballot counts show that the GNP was supported only by people in their 50s and older. The conservative population is not just worried about President Lee’s term, but the demise of the conservative movement. The president must come down from his high horse and connect with the real world.


*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Jin-kook

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