[Viewpoint] What Lee legacy?

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[Viewpoint] What Lee legacy?

Everybody’s awaiting the outcome of the by-election in Bundang B District of Gyeonggi. Among the three National Assembly by-elections on April 27, Bundang is the greatest litmus test for political heavyweights gauging their chances in next year’s presidential election. If Democratic Party Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu beats his rival from Grand National Party, former chairman Kang Jae-sup, in the traditionally conservative district, he could gain important impetus for the presidential race. The by-election results won’t merely be a score board for political parties, but for aspiring presidential candidates as well.

The race for the next presidency has already begun. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and Gyeonggi Governor Kim Moon-soo from the conservative camp have declared their ambitions. From the liberal camp, Rhyu Si-min, an aide of former President Roh Moo-hyun, has been named head of the People’s Participation Party and is expected to contest.

The 2012 election equation has become more complicated compared to earlier, when only one name was mentioned: Park Geun-hye, the main rival of President Lee Myung-bak. The candidates are likely to rev up precampaign activities after the summer. The media spotlight will likely swivel to them even though the president still has two years left in his term.

Looking at the names of the contenders, I wondered how President Lee Myung-bak will be remembered after he steps down. Since direct elections began, all the presidents have left conspicuous imprints on the political map. President Roh Tae-woo is best remembered for making diplomatic breakthroughs with communist countries, Kim Young-sam for distancing the military from politics and his corruption-fighting push for financial transactions to be done transparently, Kim Dae-jung for the Sunshine Policy, and Roh Moo-hyun for political reforms.

What characterizes President Lee? Despite many events and a few disasters over the last three years, he gets a good grade on overall performance. At the same time, he has not had any truly memorable accomplishments. In fact, apart from the still-controversial multibillion-dollar project to dam and dredge four major rivers, his administration cannot come up with a single signature achievement. I asked around. Others also scratched their heads.

The economy successfully defended itself against a global financial crisis, but nevertheless has its flaws: polarization of wealth, skyrocketing inflation, the home rent crisis and high unemployment. Although Lee has been consistent and principled in his dealings with North Korea, relations are bitter and security jitters have rarely been so high. On democracy issues, freedom of political activities and expression have backtracked significantly.

Despite its stated belief in free market principles, the government’s hand has been heavy in appointments in the financial industry and interference in corporate affairs. On the surface, Lee comes across as a competent leader who has kept state administration steady, while failing to move the country in a new or better direction. Lee doesn’t seem to have devoted any attention to searching for new values or a new vision at a time of phenomenal changes in our society and the world outside.

Such shortcomings become more obvious when you look back to past administrations. Although our presidents go home after five years, a president’s policies ripple forward for generations. If President Roh Tae-woo has not sought to normalize ties with the communist bloc, Kim Dae-jung could not have thought of the Sunshine Policy. If Kim Young-sam had not punished those accountable for brutalities and corruption during the military regimes or pursued the depoliticization of the military, Roh Moo-hyun might not have dared to reform the political sector. Regardless of political ideology or party allegiance, a president’s actions push our nation in a new direction.

In his New Year’s address, President Lee said he was proud of working hard during his term. If he has been in a sprint over the last three years, maybe he should now take a break, look back and contemplate what he has accomplished and what he hasn’t, and seriously contemplate his next moves. He must seriously ask himself what role he has played in history. He will also have to brood on why he has failed to leave much of an impression on the public, despite all of his hard work.

Lee can’t think long since he doesn’t have much time left. Next year, attention shifts to all the people who want to be his successor. Moreover, there is a danger that the ruling party may lose its majority in the National Assembly in the general election next April. The remainder of the year is all the time Lee has to make his mark in the history books. If there’s something that badly needs to be done, or undone, he must act fast.

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

By Kang Won-taek
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