Better communication, political coordination key to president’s success
President Lee Myung-bak greets the third anniversary of his inauguration Friday with a stack of uncompleted policy tasks and lingering concerns of political estrangement.
Tricky pending tasks include deciding where to locate a 3.5-trillion-won science-business belt and a new international airport in the southeastern region, both of which were part of Lee’s campaign pledges.
The government is cautious as the decisions, expected to be made by this June amid fierce competition among local governments, will influence the parliamentary and presidential elections next year.
The success of the Lee administration also depends on how it completes the project to dredge and develop the nation’s four main rivers, improves defense capabilities, manages relations with North Korea, vitalizes the economy, eases the shortage of affordable homes for lease, reduces private education expenses and makes society fairer.
Lee recently launched a monthly meeting of top officials, scholars and civic group leaders to draw concrete measures to enhance fairness in areas such as military service, education, labor, tax payment, personnel management of public officials and the relationship between large and small companies.
In terms of foreign policy, the administration is urged to make more efforts to cement ties with China, which did not stand by South Korea when it accused North Korea of torpedoing the naval ship Cheonan last year.
As for the four-river development work scheduled to be completed this year, civic groups are raising suspicions that construction funds were misappropriated.
President Lee Myung-bak gives a speech at an international forum in Seoul on Thursday. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)
The government is also struggling to curb skyrocketing prices of long-term housing leases, or jeonse, as they weigh on low- and middle-income households.
As a man of tireless exertion, Lee likes to stress that his government can get a great deal of work done in the remaining two years of his tenure and refuses to address anxieties about crumbling power.
“Some people describe my situation as going downhill from the mountaintop, but I see it as running on an even ground for five years until I pass the baton to the next runner,” Lee told reporters over a luncheon meeting Sunday.
“(The mountaintop metaphor) comes from a power-oriented perspective of the world. I’ve never looked at my job that way.”
But he did witness a widening rift even with the ruling Grand National Party as he entered the second half of his term.
Lack of communication reached its height when the party publicly disapproved of his nominee for the chief state auditor last month.
The presidential office expressed unease at the way the GNP made the announcement ― without prior consultations. Former prosecutor and presidential aide Chung Tong-ki shortly withdrew nomination as chairman of the Board of Audit and Inspection, adding to Lee’s list of personnel management failures.
“Lee may deny it, but presidents are bound to feel impatient and insecure towards the end of their terms under a single-term presidency,” said Choi Jin, a political scientist who runs the Institute of Presidential Leadership, a private think tank.
“As the pragmatic leader he claims to be, Lee should reach out beyond his small pool of cronies in appointing senior officials.”
The fact that the president has not held talks with the main opposition Democratic Party leader for nearly two and a half years is seen as more proof of his relative disregard for political coordination.
“Lee has been criticized mostly for his one-way communication style, negligence of political negotiation and insufficient efforts to attain social consensus on policy issues,” said Kang Won-taek, professor of political science at Seoul National University.
“Instead of just saying what he wants to, he should listen more to different voices about his policies and acknowledge the importance of compromise and communication in politics.”
As for communication with the public, the president has never held a proper press conference where he is supposed to answer unscripted questions on a variety of pending national issues.
Instead of holding a New Year’s press conference, which his predecessors never skipped, Lee read out New Year’s addresses in 2009 and 2010, and spoke in a televised talk show this year. Lee’s last four press conferences were limited to certain topics such as the atomic power plant deal Korea won in the United Arab Emirates and the Seoul G20 summit.
During the luncheon following a mountain hike with reporters on Sunday, he refused to answer most of the questions, saying “such a hard question is not appropriate for a mealtime after hiking. I will answer that when I’m clad in a suit and a necktie (instead of trekking clothes).”
Despite the shortcomings in domestic politics, Lee’s three years in office were marked with many achievements including Korea’s relatively quick rebound from the global economic crisis and the hosting of the G20 summit.
Korea pulled off what the International Monetary Fund described as a “textbook recovery” by showing the fastest economic upturn among member countries of the OECD.
When most advanced nations were still posting minus growths in 2009 in the aftermath of the U.S.-bound economic crisis, Korea’s economy grew 0.2 percent.
The country’s per capita income bounced back to over $20,000 last year as its economy marked the biggest annual growth in eight years ― 6.1 percent.
By Kim So-hyun (email@example.com