Return of Lee’s troops
The author is the head of the political news team of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The newly formed transition committee for President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has been labeled “Lee Myung-bak 2.0.” It is how the ruling Democratic Party (DP) is ridiculing the committee. Even at a glance, there are many members of the Lee Myung-bak faction. In the past, the conservatives were either pro-Lee Myung-bak or pro-Park Geun-hye. Since Park Geun-hye has been impeached, the pro-Park faction has been a mess, and it is realistically hard to hire them again as members of the transition committee. So, it could be natural that the president-elect is united with the Lee faction.
In the transition committee, the Lee faction is positioned widely, as committee members and in the offices of Yoon’s secretaries, special advisors, and other experts dispatched from each ministry of the government. There are rumors that many veterans will be appointed as cabinet members or take major posts in the new president’s office. But personally, I am paying special attention to one member of the pro-Lee group.
Lee Sang-hwi, head of the second state affairs team of the president-elect’s secretariat, served as the public relations planning secretary in Lee Myung-bak’s Blue House. His background and history is far from a typical elite official — a male Seoul National University graduate with a law degree in his 50s. Rather than being labeled an elite, he is called “a life expert who has done everything.” Coming from Pohang — the hometown of former president Lee Myung-bak — he barely graduated from Pohang Fisheries High School, where mostly economically-disadvantaged students attended. Then he went to Yong In University. A few months after graduating from college, he worked for a pyramid sales company that offered a handsome salary. After that, he joined a major corporation — the secretary’s office at Dongbang Group —but he ended up with a 100 million-won ($82,000) debt that he had underwritten for a friend. He had an office job during the day and worked odd jobs during nights and on weekends. He wore an animal costume at an amusement park and emceed at night clubs and parties.
An episode from his days as an aide to a lawmaker is well-known. He worked hard at the frontline, managing the district. He toured seven morning soccer teams in the district on weekends. His “eccentric life” didn’t end as he served as head of the Chunchugwan, a pressroom in the Blue House, and as public relations planning secretary for the president. He also served as co-president of an online media outlet. As a reporter of this media outlet, he registered himself as a correspondent to the Chunchugwan, where he was the head.
At present, the official job description of the head of the second state affairs team of the president-elect’s secretarial office is “assisting with state affairs.” When a reporter asked what “assisting with state affairs” meant to him, he snapped, “There are many supplies to be provide to the committee, such as bread, cookies, chairs and tissues. It is the role of assisting with state affairs, so I am very busy. Don’t call me again.”
I am mentioning his career because many people who worked in the Lee administration from 2008 to 2013 are gathering under President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol. They are full of ambition that they will achieve the dreams they couldn’t attain before.
The Lee administration and the Yoon Suk-yeol transition committee have more than similar people. They are also similar in mindset as they prioritize national interests and utility over ideology. Just like Yoon who cries out for integration, national interest and utility, Lee Myung-bak was also aggressive 14 years ago. He wanted to call the administration a “practical administration” rather than putting his name before the word.
In the 2007 primary considered to be most intense in history, Lee competed against Park geun-hye, who claimed to be a “traditional conservative” with his “centrist practical” line. After elected president, Lee boldly presented issues advocated by the liberals, such as green growth.
The ambitious practical centrist experiment of Lee Myung-bak faltered for two critical reasons: clumsy risk management and internal power struggle. First, it failed to properly respond to the Mad Cow Disease rumors and the liberal camp’s attempt to shake the new conservative administration. The foundation of the Lee administration that started out with a focus on utility was shaken completely from the early days. The second reason is internal division. As signs of discord among insiders were evident from the transition committee, the conflict exploded at the beginning of the term. In the Lee Myung-bak administration, the discord began from “who will draft the Blue House appointment list and who get to recommend ministerial candidates.” That conflict broke the core of the administration into two. Since then, the Lee administration was indecisive about whether it was ideologically conservative or centrist. Insiders fell out as they clashed over appointments. The challenges of Lee’s men who tried to build a practical government beyond being left and right based on a landslide victory fizzled amid extreme internal strife. As a result, Korean politics had to go through the tunnel of the Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in administrations — 9 years of a dark age tainted by confrontation and inconsistency.
Korea is faced with a critical moment that cannot be wasted with factional or ideological battle. I pray for the good luck of Yoon and Lee’s men so as not to miss the crucial chance they got 14 years after the launch of the Lee administration.