No more cockeyed messiah, pleaseNo other country is likely to have seen so many offspring of former and incumbent presidents pose for photos in front of the prosecutors’ office upon arriving there after being summonsed for various crimes or investigations. With Lee Si-hyung, the son of President Lee Myung-bak, recently called in by an independent counsel to help with a special investigation into allegations that he skirted the law in buying land for a retirement home for his father in a well-to-do neighborhood in southern Seoul, all of our leaders’ scions have now been questioned for irregularities. They total 11, of whom five have been indicted and served prison sentences. Apart from Si-hyung, they were all involved in bribery charges. MB’s son is being investigated for violating the real estate law in what some claim is an attempt to avoid paying inheritance tax.
President Lee may be privately fuming after having run a tight ship for the last few years, during which time he sustained a no-nonsense business style in office, attended cabinet meetings daily at 8 a.m., and dealt with at least four or five official schedules a day. He checked on the details of projects being undertaken at all government offices and studied reports to learn important data by heart, according to his aides. As such, he may be upset at finding himself the target of a witch-hunt by the public during his final days in office.
He never claimed to be perfect. The people were well aware of his questionable moral standards, and the vast wealth he amassed during his career as a business tycoon. Meanwhile, as a presidential candidate, he was attacked for having illegally put his offspring on the payroll of a building management company he ran to give them allowances. He moved houses to avoid taxes, dodged taxes on public health insurance and lost his legislative seat for violating the election law.
Lee was also connected with a stock-price-fixing scheme involving a company called BBK, among other controversies, and he has been criticized for his lack of public ethics and shady business practices. However, he still won the presidency by a landslide, beating his opponent by 5.31 million votes.
The fact that he would want to purchase a spacious plot of land in Naegok-dong, southern Seoul, for his retirement residence should not come as that much of a surprise to anyone. Even if the prosecutors uncover certain illegalities in the deal, the case would remain consistent with the way this savvy businessman has often organized shrewd and money-saving deals. In fact, for many voters this business skill and cunning entrepreneurship was part of his appeal.
During his five-year term, Lee has been consistent and predictable, racking up a number of high-profile achievements and agreements at home and abroad. He wanted to expand on the remarkable success of the Cheonggye Stream restoration project that he engineered during his mayoral tenure by improving the four major rivers of Korea. He stood firmly against waves of protest and opposition and bulldozed ahead with the project, trying to appease his critics by working tirelessly.
If he were the chief executive of a corporation, he would deserve to feel proud of his accomplishments - the four-river restoration project, energy diplomacy, and the Global Climate Fund. But few voters pay attention to his successes nowadays, and people are more inclined to shake their head in disappointment upon hearing his name. They complain that he failed to deliver on his key promise to revive the economy, and this is partly Lee’s fault. He ambitiously pledged to make the economy grow by 7 percent annually, raise per-capita income to $40,000, and include the country among the ranks of the world’s top seven economies. He also vowed to make everyone richer and build a social system that rewards hard - and honest - work.
We were bewitched by his optimism and dreamy visions, and we turned a blind eye to his moral defects. But few of his promises were realized, and in their place, the public was left with a lot of white elephants and failed projects. The people were again fooled by their political leadership.
However, we cannot bathe in ignorance and claim this was not at least partially predictable. No president can make the entire population wealthy, and it was naive of us to think so in the first place. We could kick ourselves for our stupidity, but at the time we had few alternatives except to join in this collective dream. As politicians routinely put their own ambitions first and the needs of the people and the country’s future second, public sympathy traditionally swings from left to right - from a political novelty like Roh Moo-hyun to an efficient businessman like Lee Myung-bak - in search for a leader who can make a change. But as in the past, we’ve ended up feeling disappointed. As the election campaigns reach their peak and the top three candidates promise voters the earth, while sniping at one another in the wings, let’s just hope we don’t feel as ungrateful as we do today in five years’ time.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yang Sunny