Converting crisis to opportunityPresident Lee Myung-bak is facing his biggest crisis since taking office in 2008. Externally, a second global financial crisis is quickly approaching. But the bigger problem is that the Lee administration’s internal cohesiveness has hit its lowest level, as represented by the investigation into his close aide Kim Du-woo, former senior secretary for public relations, who was summoned by the prosecution on charges of bribery. Another old confidante Shin Jae-min, former vice minister of culture, sports and tourism, is also under investigation for corruption.
The economic crisis can be overcome as long as the ruling Grand National Party and the people are united around the president. We saw an example of this in late 1997, when then-President-elect Kim Dae-jung was able to recover from the foreign exchange crisis that hit Korea. At a time when the people’s support for him hovered at over 70 percent - and the morality and credibility of the government was at its peak- the new administration was able to overcome the situation because ordinary citizens rallied behind him and volunteered to donate their gold rings and necklaces to the state coffers.
The situation during the October 2008 global financial crisis was no different. Although it lost much of its support because of massive candlelight protests against U.S. beef imports, the Lee administration still maintained a high level of morality and trust among the public, with approval ratings for Lee exceeding 50 percent. Thanks to that, the administration weathered the crisis, helping Korea to join the ranks of the Group of 20 countries.
But the Lee administration has been defeated in consecutive elections since its first loss in the June 2 local elections last year. Even worse, it is embroiled in the lame duck doldrums, as seen by the unfettered corruption of Lee’s aides. That costs the administration not only political assets but also the centripetal force it needs most at the moment. The administration’s internal crisis is exemplified by the nationwide blackout caused by the complacency of the Korea Power Exchange and the Financial Supervisory Service’s failure to oversee savings banks
For Lee, the remaining 17 months are crucial. Regardless of the results of the Seoul mayoral by-election in October and the presidential election next year, the president must demonstrate his leadership over the ruling party, the Blue House and the administration by defining this period as a new turning point. He must not forget that, within a crisis, there always lies an opportunity for change.