Looking back at Lee

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Looking back at Lee

During a recent conversation with a political commentator, I asked him a question. “What kind of president will President Lee Myung-bak be remembered as?” He replied that the people will remember Lee as a president who worked. Then he gave a one-word evaluation for each of the past presidents. Kim Young-sam was about mission, Kim Dae-jung was about vision, Roh Moo-hyun was about a dream and Lee Myung-bak was all about work.

Many will wonder what the point is of evaluating the president now since his term is near its end and the voters are about to elect the next president. The person we elect is an important issue, but how to evaluate a president during his term is equally important.

No president can survive when shaken throughout the term, and we are the ones who suffer the damage. We’ve experienced just that kind of volatility during the terms of presidents Roh and Lee.

It’s extremely disturbing to see Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in emphasize - or trumpet - the failures of the Roh and Lee governments to win votes. Don’t they have their own visions for the future? Is blaming Roh and Lee the only way to win votes?

Park and Moon are the presidential candidates, but they apparently don’t care that they too could become scapegoats for someone else in the future, just as they are exploiting our two former presidents. How can they talk about unity while desperately trying to win votes through such divisiveness?

Portraying Roh’s term as a dream and Lee’s as a lot of work are not necessarily positive descriptions. Roh’s dream can be seen as an unrealistic ideal. Lee’s work may have been bulldozing through projects without care.

But who are the people that made Roh’s dream fail? Are they proud of having treated Roh as a tool, not the president, and shaken his pragmatism? How many people have a long-term perspective of Lee’s accomplishments? Can they sneer at him as the “construction president” when they stand at the Geum or Yeongsan rivers?

We’ve heard too many times about how backward Korean politics is because everyone’s always trying to drag down the past president. It is a way to denigrate the past to find justification for the new. That strategy has not worked in either legislative or presidential campaigns this year.

The voters are smart. When a candidate presents a new vision, the voters will respond. What we have seen is that Ahn Cheol-soo is not qualified, or ready, to fill that role right now.

I have no intention of challenging the commentator’s evaluation of our presidents. Mission, vision, dream and work are all crucial elements, like water, fire, earth and wind.

But they are single qualities. A president is not a perfect being who can cure everything, and our past presidents all played their parts.

President Kim Dae-jung succeeded in the foreign exchange crisis and the upcoming president will succeed in demands for jobs and bigger welfare benefits amidst a slow economy and low growth.

No president gave up on growth. Both Roh and Lee worked hard to grow the economy. The performance was a little better in the Lee administration because Korea’s economic growth rate was still higher than the average world economic growth rate.

No president ignored welfare, and both Roh and Lee worked hard to provide more benefits. Government spending on welfare benefits grew every year. Of course, the Lee administration’s welfare budget is the largest ever in terms of size and importance.

No president gave up on the country’s fiscal health, and the result was Korea’s boosted sovereign credit rating during the Lee administration despite a global economic crisis. It is a remarkable achievement. No president ignored the issue of income distribution.

Growth, welfare, fiscal health and wealth distribution are a combined achievement of all presidents. But it is Lee alone who pushed a green growth paradigm for the first time in the world and completed the so-called green triangle by hosting the Global Green Growth Institute, Green Technology Center and Green Climate Fund.

The Lee administration has had its shortcomings and stumbles. What if it had known at the time that the anti-U.S. beef hysteria first started on the fan club site of the idol group TVXQ and spread to other sites? What if it had realized the depth of frustration and rage felt by young Korean homemakers about possible health risks? What if it handled certain civic groups in a more civil way? What if it had had the decency not to spy on its critics?

And what if it didn’t start the four-rivers restoration project with ideas that came from the earlier Grand Canal proposal? What if the projects were carried out specifically for environmental preservation and improvement? What if it focused on child care instead of the four-rivers project from the beginning? What if it had done a whole lot better in its personnel appointments over the past five years?

With every president, there are many “what ifs.” Too many. Lee is the president who worked hard during his five-year term. It is not courteous to denigrate him just for having served as our president. Courtesy of that sort is our own self-esteem as voters.

* The author is the editor in chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Su-gil
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