[Viewpoint]The many meanings of Lee’s initials

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[Viewpoint]The many meanings of Lee’s initials

A political leader’s initials can be the barcode of his fate. Kim Young-sam, or Y.S., was a “young statesman,” who became a member of the National Assembly at the tender age of 25. Kim Dae-jung fought in the “democratization jungle.” Kim Jong-pil, who never made it past second in command, was “just political.”

President Lee Myung-bak’s initials, M.B., also deserve a closer look. In the early days of the Lee administration, I wrote a column titled “The fate of the initials M.B.” When Lee was president of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, he was a “mobile bulldozer,” operating all over the world.

When he became the mayor of Seoul, he displayed the talents of a “metro businessman” in initiatives like the Cheonggye Stream restoration project.

However, he has also been a “moral burden” to citizens. He has been accused of violating some election laws and of other less-than-upstanding actions like unlawfully changing his address to send his children to a better school. And we can all recall the BBK scandal in 2007, when then-presidential candidate Lee was allegedly involved in illegal stock-price rigging.

M.B. overcame the difficulties, though, to become “master of the Blue House.” Still, I had written that Lee’s initials would continue to morph once he came to power.

The “most and best” in M.B.’s life is certainly his five-year term as president of Korea. Three years and seven months into his administration, we can see the initials’ magic at work.

In December 2009, the M.B. administration won a $20 billion nuclear power plant construction project in the United Arab Emirates. M.B. reportedly designed the bidding strategy based on his experience at Hyundai Engineering and Construction. He saw that wooing the crown prince was of the utmost importance and focused the offensive on him. Then, M.B. was the “master of bidding.” If the next administration were to be determined in a bidding war, he would surely win the race.

The most ecstatic moment in the M.B. administration so far must be when the Operation Dawn of Gulf of Aden was executed in January. The naval operation against Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea rescued the crew of a chemical tanker.

Lee’s reputation had suffered a serious setback after the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Lee launched F-15K fighters into the air but did not order a retaliatory strike. The commander in chief failed to strike back after the North took military and civilian lives. This made the military look incompetent, and the president pathetic.

But the Navy saved the president and the military’s reputation through Operation Dawn, which was successful even as it took place in the wide waters thousands of miles away from home. M.B. then stood for “marine blitz.”

More recently, the initials’ magic has been fading. The M.B. administration is under attack by the “monster of bribe.” Historically, no administration has survived the attack of the monster. But M.B. fought back hard.

The president donated 30 billion won ($25.4 million) of his own money, and citizens wanted to trust him in light of the philanthropic move. However, the strike of the monster brought down his guard, and the attack has spread flames all over the administration. Unless a brave man comes out and extinguishes the fire, the M.B. fortress will soon fall.

As his aides capitulate, M.B. is becoming a “miserable boss.” A president can only be powerful when supported by honest and passionate aides. Park Chung Hee had his chief of staff, Kim Jeong-ryeom, and Oh Won-cheol, a presidential secretary for economic affairs. President Chun Doo Hwan had the support of his economic advisor, Kim Jae-ik, until he was killed in the 1983 Rangoon bombing.

In contrast, when an administration’s aides are corrupt, the authority of the president is undermined. Hong In-gil, Park Ji-won and Park Jeong-gyu were responsible for putting Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun in difficult situations.

Lee Myung-bak has one year and five months remaining in his term. This is a short period but should provide enough time to revive the initials’ magic.

The “most and best” of M.B. may be hidden somewhere in the remaining 17 months. If Lee can prevent corruption, get over the economic crisis and stand by principles in North Korean policy, the “most and best” will pop out somewhere, sometime.

What will the final act of M.B.’s governance be called one year and five months from now? That’s up to the president himself.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin
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