[Viewpoint] Presidential makeovers good and bad

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[Viewpoint] Presidential makeovers good and bad

Inconsistency is not a privilege unique to the female species. Men, too, change. Even the high and the mighty, like the president, are entitled to it. But there is a catch. You must change for the better. Otherwise, you are bound to be ridiculed.

Makeovers usually flop when overdone. Early Presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee went overboard by changing the Constitution several times in order to cling to power. Their pride was overblown, and they thought no one could replace them, generating public disgust.

To succeed in transformation is simple. Do the opposite of Rhee and Park: be selfless and true. Such sincerity can win over hearts from different corners. This rule of thumb is particularly effective in economic policies that affect varying political interests.

President Kim Dae-jung was an expert in chameleon-like adaptation in response to different circumstances. The president’s first job in office was to sign a bailout from the International Monetary Fund to keep the country afloat during a financial crisis in late 1997. He earned the epithet “IMF Plus” for going further than IMF demands on layoffs, collective lawsuits and mergers and acquisitions.

For a dissident-turned-president, endorsing massive layoffs was a hard pill to swallow. He had to turn against his loyal working-class supporters. He was elected on a campaign pledge to bargain for a two-year moratorium on the layoff system.

But after a few days in office, he yielded to the IMF package. The godfather of the working class came under fire for becoming an advocate of the conglomerates. Despite the price of betraying his voting base, the long-time opposition leader morphed because he believed it was the best thing for his country.

A successful metamorphosis is rewarded. Systematizing layoffs was a long-time goal for Korean business, ending a system in which jobs were secure for life. President Kim, having made the business sector’s wishes come true, was able to get his own demands in return. He demanded stringent reforms and restructuring from conglomerates. The successful quid pro quo enabled South Korea to graduate from the IMF debt program in just two years.

President Roh Moo-hyun was not only President Kim’s protege in democratic ideology, but also in his ability to transform himself. The one-time human rights activist had long been anti-conglomerate. As a presidential candidate, he vowed to reform the conglomerates.

But he changed after moving into the Blue House. He was an avid, pro-capitalist salesman on overseas trips. During a visit to Russia in September 2004, he declared, “Business defines the country.” While visiting India the next month, he said he was proud of Korean companies. Then in November that year in Brazil, he said that Korean companies were true patriots.

But sadly, it was never a true love. He remained uncomfortable with the business sector until the end of his term. Despite his generous praise abroad, he went on with business-bashing at home.

The Roh transformation peaked when he signed a free trade agreement with the United States. Most of his aides strongly opposed it, but the president was steadfast in pursuing the pact.

He directly phoned President George W. Bush when the negotiations hit a snag at the last minute. Then-Trade Minister Kim Hyun-jong said President Roh had his own philosophy on opening markets. The deal also cost him his voting base in the rural areas, but he pushed forward because he, too, believed it was best for his country.

Now we come to President Lee Myung-bak and his makeover. We can no longer recognize the entrepreneurship of his days in industry, or his doctrine that growth is more important than wealth sharing. He frequents marketplaces and shops to connect with ordinary citizens.

His new pro-working class attitude has made him anti-business. Recently, he railed against large companies for spending and investing little despite their ample cash reserves, making the lives of citizens more difficult. He also chided large capital companies for slapping high interest rates on consumer loans.

His aides are worse. They say they differ from past administrations in their populist policies and reckless business-bashing. They also say their policies don’t prioritize wealth equality over growth.

The administration should learn from its predecessors by coming out honestly to seek support and sacrifice from their main supporters - in the case of this government, the elite and business class. Only with sincerity can a convert gain sympathy and support and possibly succeed.

We should remember self-renouncing leaderships that pushed ahead with the best interests of the nation even at the cost of betraying their supporters. His predecessors have done it and so can President Lee.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is business editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Yi Jung-jae
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