[Viewpoint] Our meek presidentThe destiny of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement is at a crossroads, but President Lee Myung-bak is silent. The goals and means of the left have already been revealed. They have approached the FTA as if it were a copy of the mad cow disease fear mongering, and the streets are full of rumors and anti-American sentiment. The slogan of “mad cow disease, a hole in the brain” has been replaced with the slogan of “nine million won for an appendectomy,” but the leftists don’t stop. They want to use the FTA to unite leftist voters for next year’s elections. On the frontline of the anti-FTA campaign is newly elected Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.
The Korea-U.S. FTA is different from the agreement to resume U.S. beef imports because it was initiated by the late former President Roh Moo-hyun during his term. The ratification bill contains his vision. “The Republic of Korea, of which I am the president, is not a country that is engaged in humiliating diplomacy with the United States and makes unfair concessions,” Roh once said.
He also attacked the weakest point of liberals. “In the 1980s, the liberals’ opposition against foreign bonds was proven wrong, and their protest against joining the World Trade Organization was also wrong,” Roh said. “I have an earnest request to the liberals. They must not keep singing the old songs by being obsessed with empty theories.”
The leftists vow to uphold Roh’s spirit, but this time, they have ignored it. They separated Roh from the FTA. With a skillful and bold trick, they reorganized anti-FTA sentiment, and the Democratic Party jumped on it.
The decisive moment has come. Most people want to hear Roh’s commitment to the FTA from Lee’s mouth. They want to feel the irony of FTA opposition from Lee. And yet, the president’s voice is nowhere to be heard.
This is an opportunity for Lee. It is a moment to clear up rumors and boost his legitimacy. The people are waiting for Lee’s determination and skills. And yet, Lee has not tried to persuade or encourage the National Assembly to ratify the FTA. He did the same during the anti-U.S. beef rallies. He was not confident and neglected to properly address rumors. In the market of information, he was unskillful in separating the truth from rumors. He became cornered.
Is Lee’s silence a habit? That is a mystery. Repeated silence produces sarcasm and contempt.
Lee appeared to be uncomfortable about having a head-to-head contest. Immediately after the Cheonan’s sinking, he lacked determination, and rumors and conspiracy theories spread. It was the same in the controversy over the Sejong City relocation. At the time, Lee made then-Prime Minister Chung Un-chan lead the effort to scrap the relocation plan but failed. Indirect leadership cannot win respect.
The demands for “half-price” tuition appeared at the beginning of this year. Corruption in private university foundations, unreasonably high salaries for university employees and professors’ irresponsible spending for their overseas studies were revealed at some schools. Students and parents were enraged. That was the time for Lee to begin a campaign to substantially lower tuition. The people wanted Lee to deplore the situation and act with determination.
And yet, Lee did not say anything straightforward. He handed the issue over to the Board of Audit and Inspection, a move that was seen as the president being indifferent to the people’s suffering. Expectations for the president, who comes from a poor family background, turned into feelings of betrayal. Young Koreans abandoned him, and Lee’s sincerity was dented.
The riversides along the four major rivers have transformed greatly, but they became symbols of anti-Lee sentiment. Although 2.2 trillion won ($2 billion) was spent, the project failed to please the public. It was wrong to simultaneously push forward the project at all four rivers. They should have been done one after another, with the success of the first project allowing the rest to follow. The success of the first project would have had other regions requesting the restoration of their rivers. The government should have stimulated competition. It was foolish to push forward the entire project at the same time.
Lee has been leading using CEO-style tactics. The restoration of the four major rivers is subject to a historical evaluation, and the Lee administration is feeling relieved about it. But that is a very risky attitude because process - as much as the outcome - is important in a five-year, single-term presidency. The president should face the public opinion, engage in discussions and share emotions. That would guarantee the sense of connectedness.
Lee as a salesman has become a legend. He has the image of a determined man who changed a crisis into an opportunity. But President Lee is far from such characteristics. It is hard to find a strong will to win. It is a mystery. Pragmatism and diligence are not enough to persuade and pressure the leftists because the people want to see determination.
President Lee is better treated in other countries than he is at home. There is a big gap between domestic opinion of our leader and what people abroad think of him. Even so, there is nothing to be sour about because past Korean presidents all had similar experiences. It was probably the worst during the Roh Tae-woo administration. His “Northern Diplomacy” reshaped the landscape of Korea’s foreign affairs. And yet, he was terrible in internal affairs.
A president with a poor record on home affairs cannot be a successful president. A president’s image and how history will judge him are determined first through his performance in domestic affairs - not through evaluations of foreign policy. And Lee has failed to realize this.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Park Bo-gyoon