[Viewpoint] O brother, what art thou?Soon after President Lee Myung-bak took office in March 2008, his brother found himself in controversy. It was deja vu for Korea. The Korean people have been frustrated with endless corruption scandals involving the president’s family and relatives. No matter how scrupulous they’ve been in the past, blood relations of the president often fall prey to temptations. That’s the main reason why many opposed the elder Lee’s intention to run for legislative office in April.
It was a risk for Lee Sang-deuk to run in the elections. The ruling party was reshuffling candidates for the southern region, a traditional conservative base. Of 20 three-time lawmakers, 14 had to relinquish their seats to make way for newcomers. Those aged over 65 were automatically disqualified. Of 62 legislators in the southern constituencies, 27 were replaced for the April elections.
But Lee, a five-term lawmaker from South Gyeongsang, wanted to stay in the game. The disqualification guidelines on number of terms and age were waived for the president’s brother. He should have stepped aside because of his personal relationship with the president, yet he decided he would prefer to stay in power. North Korea’s third-generation hereditary power succession may be unprecedented in world history, but Lee’s sixth-term parliamentary office bid would also go down as a rarity in the political history books.
As Lee pushed ahead with his campaign plans despite disgruntlement within and outside the party, he said in a teary voice that he had considered giving up his candidacy for fear of putting a burden on his younger brother. He promised not to take any executive position in the party or the legislature if he were elected and vowed to be extra careful as a blood relative of the president.
I wrote a column entitled “The President’s Family Pain.” “Why does such unfortunate history repeat itself? President Lee Myung-bak also faces a test from his family. Vice Speaker Lee Sang-deuk is the president’s older brother by six years. Their mother, who did not even get an elementary education, awakened all of her seven children at dawn before she went to work, and together they prayed for the country, community, relatives and siblings.
“The older brother is now under public scrutiny. People are wondering how he survived as a candidate while younger and better qualified players were frozen out. Rumors are rampant that people are lining up to Lee because of his blood relationship and his candidacy. We cannot know how many people are circling around him in pursuit of power and spoils. No matter how he tries to stave off temptation, he could fall prey. The people will be watching the big brother.”
My prediction came true. A key aide of Representative Lee is under investigation for pocketing millions of won as bribes for lobbying. It’s still unknown how much he earned from selling the big brother’s influence. But what’s certain is that the allegations are just the tip of the iceberg. For the last four years, the public had to hear unpleasant stories and reports in association with the big brother. His name popped in the illegal fund-raising scandal, preferential budget appropriation, government appointments and selection of election candidates.
Representative Lee may insist he is innocent. But that is the same as claiming he is clean while stretching his face above a pile of mud. Representative Lee may want to stress his role in landing multibillion-dollar resource projects for the country. But he exacted a bigger price from the Lee administration. The Lee government’s slogan of a “fair society” is mocked by his brother’s shady deals.
The people are sick, tired and disgusted with the deja vu of corruption scandals involving all of our presidents: President Chun Doo-hwan and his younger brother Chun Kyung-hwan, President Roh Tae-woo and Park Chul-un (a relative from Roh’s wife’s side), President Kim Young-sam and his son Hyun-chul, and President Kim Dae-jung and his son. President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide after his wife came under investigation on allegations of bribe-taking.
President Lee now joins the infamous list.
Representative Lee has now announced he is not running in April and will retire from politics. His action came too late. A brother who could not give up his ambitions for the sake of his younger brother - a president who could not persuade his brother to play straight - and people who fed on the big brother’s influence all contributed to a disastrous end to this administration.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin