Don’t forget President Lee’s merits

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Don’t forget President Lee’s merits

President Lee Myung-bak’s approval ratings hover around 20 percent. This strikes me as an extraordinarily unfair judgment. He has been one of the Republic of Korea’s best presidents. Here’s why:

First, despite the Great Recession, which occurred on Lee’s watch through no fault of his own, unemployment stayed below 4 percent for his entire tenure and GDP never contracted. Obama would have sailed smoothly into re-election with that record; that is simply astonishing. American employment peaked close to 10 percent, and European unemployment more than tripled Korea’s rate.

More generally, as the rest of the OECD members entered a nasty recession, Korea did not; Korea grew, even in 2009. In fact, the Great Recession barely reached Korea. No banks collapsed, nor did the Kospi. No European-style austerity riots broke out. Exports held up.

A wisely-sought credit line from the U.S. Treasury defended the won, which bounced back quickly after a one-year decline. For all the talk of inequality and “economic democratization,” Korea’s Gini coefficient, a formal measure of inequality, is lower than in the U.S., China or Japan. If any Western leader had this record of economic management in the last five years, they’d be hailed as the reincarnation of Adam Smith, yet Koreans seem unwilling to admit this tremendous achievement.

Second, Lee also contained Korea’s debt and deficit during the Great Recession - an amazing achievement given the budget-busting in the EU, U.S. and Japan. During Lee’s presidency, the budget ran a deficit only once (in 2009), and debt as GDP rose 2.5 percent. And somehow Korea’s aggregate tax take is just 23 percent of GDP while nonetheless providing universal healthcare and excellent infrastructure. That’s amazing. Who else in the G-20 or OECD can chalk up post-Great Recession numbers like that?

America has added some $5 trillion in new debt since 2007, pushing its total public debt stock close to 80 percent of GDP. Its deficit exceeds a staggering $1 trillion and cost the U.S. its triple-A credit rating last summer. Mercifully, Korea entirely lacks the endless budget shenanigans that have crippled American politics for decades.

In Europe and Japan, it is worse. Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio now exceeds a frightening and historically unprecedented 200 percent; nothing seems to make Japan grow. Europe is caught in a triple crisis of political gridlock, harsh austerity, and the never-ending euro zone drama. By contrast, Korea has calm and well-managed budgets, reasonable taxes, and acceptable safety nets, despite the economic downturn. That Koreans won’t credit President Lee for this huge achievement just baffles me.

Third, Lee ended South Korea’s “aid” shakedown by North Korea while prudently managing crises like the Yeonpyeong attack. In 1997, genuine rapprochement with the North was untested; Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy” detente was worth a try. But by the mid-2000s, it was also clear that it had failed. The Sunshine Policy was evolving into permanent appeasement and, paradoxically, a lifeline for a brutal regime that regularly threatened and bullied the South.

Lee was right to pull the plug without concrete change Kim Jong-il was obviously unwilling to make. Inevitably, the North hit back, and Lee managed the fallout well. He withstood the bizarre conspiracy theories from the left about the Cheonan sinking, while also muzzling conservatives ready to risk escalation after the Yeonpyeong shelling. Yeonpyeong was particularly dangerous, as the possibility of uncontrolled escalation loomed if hot-headed decisions to strike back were made. Lee wisely chose prudence over ideological satisfaction.

In short, managing North Korea - without simply buying it off as the last two presidents did - is a tough challenge, and Lee did a really good job given the weak hand he has to play. By weak, I mean: the extraordinary vulnerability of the South’s concentrated population to North strikes; the disturbing sympathy of the South left for North Korea, matched by the growing belligerence of the South right regarding the North (if another provocation a counterstrike is likely); and the awkward but necessary role of U.S. forces in Korea. Managing this tangle is very difficult, yet of existential importance to South Korea. I cannot see how any other Korean leader could have done substantially better.

Fourth, Lee reaffirmed the critical American alliance. The U.S.-Korea alliance hugely benefits Korea, while, post-cold war, its benefit to the U.S. is less clear. Polling data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has found since the mid-2000s that only 40 percent of Americans would to fight in a second Korean War even in case of a provocation. While the North is obviously a critical regional issue, the Leninist global threat to the U.S., of which the North was a part, is long gone.

Today Korea is one more issue among many for the U.S., including terrorism, Iran, Pakistan, the drug war in Latin America, and transnational problems like global warming and proliferation. Further, the South is more than capable economically of defending itself. In short, it would have been very easy for the U.S.-South relations to drift further (as under Lee’s predecessor who disliked George Bush intensely). Given that Korea is encircled by large powers, plus the North, the external connection to the U.S. is a valuable to reinforcement of sovereignty.

In the past, Korea has been bullied by its larger neighbors; the U.S. alliance helps forestall that now. Recognizing that U.S. security interests might wane, but the great value of the alliance to Korea at the same time, Lee went to the Americans as his predecessors would not. He realized that the alternative to the U.S. tie is not full-throttled Korean autonomy against the world, but isolation in a very tough neighborhood where the South is a “shrimp among whales.” Trying to hold the Americans here as long as possible is very wise, and Lee deserves great praise for grasping that geopolitical truth over politically easier nationalist posturing of his predecessors. Like the North issue above, this is existentially important to the South, and Lee made the right choice.

So cheer up, Koreans! The last five years went far, far better than they easily could have.

* The author is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.

by Robert E. Kelly
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