[Viewpoint] The president’s Shakespearean agony

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[Viewpoint] The president’s Shakespearean agony

In William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” the protagonist expresses the agony of all kings: “Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow, Being so troublesome a bedfellow? O polish’d perturbation! golden care! That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide. To many a watchful night! sleep with it now!”

The feeling is probably similar to that of President Lee Myung-bak, whose third year in the office has now passed.

A Korean president has two faces. During the first half of the term, the president works like an emperor, controlling all policies and agendas. But during the second half of the term, the people, the media and even the ruling party resist the president. This is how past presidents became lame ducks.

Although indications of Lee’s lame duck period have not yet been visible, he probably has thought plenty about it since he, too, has witnessed the bitter experiences of his predecessors.

Political observers also have their thoughts on the matter. The past three years have been filled with the busy schedule of an imperial, or all powerful, president. The first step was the ambitious experiments for creative destruction (the Marxist theory of changing the economic order) and the second step was a clash with liberal groups. The third step was a compromise of the initial goal and a realistic revision. As we look back, predicting Lee’s next two years is clearly a difficult task.

It is hard to look back on the past three years and predict the future with only the numbers in the approval ratings and the economic index. During the early days of the Lee administration, we remembered the clashes between a strong president and civic groups. The level of confrontation and compromise was dependant on Lee.

In those days, it was natural for an imperial president like Lee to enthusiastically push forward market-friendly economic policies and policies to boost the U.S.-Korea alliance.

During the general elections in the spring of 2008, the president won an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. It was, therefore, his destiny as a president conscious of history to erase the legacies of previous administrations and begin new experiments of creative destruction.

But the experiments of his early days resulted in cultural and political conflicts with liberal civic groups, as we saw in the candlelight protests against U.S. beef imports in 2008.

In other words, it was proven that the pursuit of a fierce conservative agenda while denying the existing order was nearly impossible. It was, therefore, natural for Lee to turn to centrist pragmatism and his campaign for a “fair society” after the confrontations.

Since the change, his approval rating has recovered, but the transition is still incomplete.

Above all, Lee’s North Korea policy is still rigidly framed by conservatism. Will he be able to actively counter emergencies in North Korea and take the lead in the unification process in the future with the current North Korea policy?

Another problem with the pragmatic line is that the process of persuading his supporters was almost completely skipped. Although pragmatic policies on education, housing and employment are issued one after another, does the government candidly explain to its supporters the philosophy and background of the transition?

The criticism about his lack of communication is not coming from his opponents in loud voices. It is growing in whispers among his supporters. And of course, that is more dangerous for Lee.

King Henry IV already understood 400 years ago that there was no way to find out where the pillar of the power would begin to shake. That is precisely the reason behind the agony of any leader during the later half of his term.

We must find the answer from what we already know. We know that history does not remember many things. Therefore, the task for the second half of Lee’s term will be focusing energy on the key goal that can represent his five-year presidency. He should shape the framework of a larger task such as establishment of a fair economic and social order that can accommodate Korea’s development.

The Lee administration’s success during its later days depends on how much it can put that into action. The outcome will not only be crucial to the ruling party but also to the opposition parties in the future.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Chung-Ang University.

By Jaung Hoon
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