Korean Politics

The Long National Nightmare Is (Officially) Over

[Update: Now that I’ve read LMB’s inaugural, I’ve posted more detailed comments / ridicule below the fold and the video.]

The 17th presidency of Korea started as Lee Myung-bak formally took over presidential authority from former president Roh Moo-hyun at midnight on Monday, with the Bosingak Bell in downtown Seoul tolling the momentous hour. Lee now embarks on a government of pragmatic conservatism after putting an end to the decade-long leftwing rule. [Chosun Ilbo]

Judging by Lee’s inaugural address and the media reaction to it, Lee’s priorities seem to be (first) the economy, and (second) restoring Korean-U.S. relations, which Roh did so much to destroy. Frankly, Lee has his work cut out for him. Roh did us the great service of breaking the spell of loyalty that prevented many of us from taking a hard look at the growing disunity of U.S. and South Korean interests. Lee’s inauguration reflects some change in how South Korea perceives its interests, but changed facts eventually change policies. China has become South Korea’s largest trading partner, North Korea is no longer capable of invading South Korea, South Korea has never been more economically capable of self defense, and the United States has never had less of an interest in getting involved in a ground war in Korea.

Still, Roh and his people often went out of his way to rile friends and empower enemies near and far. We can at least count on Lee to be there when he needs us.

“We must move from the age of ideology into the age of pragmatism,” Lee told some 60,000 people who gathered for his inauguration, taking a swipe at the past 10 years of liberal rule during which he said “we found ourselves faltering and confused.” [AP]

On North Korea, Lee takes the sensible approach of keeping dialogue open while suggesting that South Korean taxpayer’s largesse will now come with conditions:

Lee said he would launch massive investment and aid projects in the North to increase its per capita income to US$3,000 (€2,000) within a decade “once North Korea abandons its nuclear program and chooses the path to openness.” [AP]

Interestingly, the highest official China appears to have sent was a “foreign policy advisor.” Lee asked for his help in getting North Korea to keep its word and disarm (good luck). More on Roh’s diplomatic approach to the North at GI Korea.

Whereas Roh’s government often seemed to cultivate or tolerate social, economic, and political xenophobia, Lee’s inaugural address suggests that he would oppose those tendencies:

He asked the people to make efforts to create a new myth on the Korean Peninsula through harmony and cooperation, social integration and economic development, upholding the “Global Korea” banner. [Chosun Ilbo]

Lee is even making efforts to improve ties with Japan, the perpetual scapegoat for Korean demagogues. Japan’s Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, attended the inauguration. Later, the two men discussed lowering trade barriers and increasing diplomatic contacts through “shuttle diplomacy.”

The AP has written a nice, concise briefing on Lee’s policies, but the really interesting stuff is in my 2005 Lee Myung Bak dossier.

The Hankyoreh has published the full text of President Lee’s speech. You can even watch the whole thing on YouTube, below the fold, although the experience will be of limited value unless you understand Korean.

Update: Having now had a chance to read President Lee’s inaugural speech, it seems an odd contradiction. I don’t know when I’ve ever heard so much soaring rhetoric about pragmatism and moderation:

Pragmatism is Zeitgeist that unites man and nature, matter and mind, individuals and communities for a healthy and beautiful life.

I’ve heard similar things said about fishing, yoga, and LSD, but never about pragmatism. I wonder if that’s going to be a theme we’ll see more of in the next five years. I also see that the speech starts with a rather jarring omission:

Together We Shall Open A Road to Advancement Fellow Koreans, seven million Korean compatriots living abroad, former Presidents Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam, and Chun Doo-hwan, President Islam Karimov of the Republic of Uzbekistan, President Enkhbayar Nambar of Mongolia, Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda of Japan, Chairman Viktor Zubkov of the Government of the Russia Federation, Vice President Muhammad Jusuf Kalla of the Republic of Indonesia, thank you for being here. [Lee Myung Bak’s Inaugural Address, from the Hankyoreh]

No sarcasm intended at all; I’m sure it was just an innocent mistake. Later, Lee says something that my wife and I have often discussed. Sometimes, the hype really is true:

As a result, our great nation achieved what no other nation ever achieved in history. In the shortest period of time, this nation achieved both industrialization and democratization. Never before seen in human history, we achieved all this with only our own fierce determination and sheer fortitude. That is how one of the poorest countries in the world has come to bid for its place among the 10 largest economies in the world.

Who can argue with that? I wish Lee wouldn’t have despoiled this rare intersection of the factual and the miraculous by driving a herd of bulls over it, but Lee then slickens the tarmac with a uniquely Korean distortion of certain events leading up to August 1945. Hearing this, you would think that Korea liberated itself. It’s not the falsity of this that offends quite so much as the studied omission of America’s role in liberating Korea from Japan. I’d be just as remiss to leave out the many Brits, Anzacs, Filipinos, and Chinese whose sacrifices also contributed to Korea’s liberation, even indirectly.

Ultranationalist Koreans who protest at Incheon these days are protesting their nation’s deliverance from tyranny and starvation. Huzzah for you, then, if you aspire to a diet of juche and cellulose, but even mainstream thinkers often don’t seem to know about that other U.S. landing at Incheon. Someone should tell them, of course, but that’s obviously asking way too much of a Korean politician. It would be toxic for any Korean to even ask it: did more Koreans fight against the Emperor or for him?

At times over the last ten years, we found ourselves faltering and confused, but now, we will take with us our achievements as well as the lessons that we learned from our failures and start anew. We must move from the age of ideology into the age of pragmatism.

I think most of us can agree that we can live without Roh Moo Hyun’s kind of ideology, and plenty of North Koreans would have lived much longer without it. But all this talk of pragmatism rings pretty hollow coming from a guy who wants to drive a canal down the length of a mountainous peninsula rings with state-of-the-art seaports. Lee does appear able to approach some issues practically, but then there are the things he really cares about, and on those things, Lee has never seemed bound by pragmatism or moderation. On those things, Lee’s vision has been grandiose, visionary, and omnipotent, suggesting a dangerous tendency to let the ends justify the means that will be his undoing. Not for nothing is he called “the bulldozer” instead of “the accountant” or even “slippery eel.” It’s as though Hwang Woo-Seok has grafted McCain’s temper to Clinton’s ruthlessness and Obama’s tendency to promise the unaffordable.

This bodes ill for the thugs of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions:

Civil movement has grown in number and in size yet, fulfillment of civic duties and responsibilities still lags far behind the demand for more rights…. We must end the era of strife and open an era of companionship. Management as well as labor must make a compromise and take a step towards each other. When the going gets tough, corporations ought to brace themselves. Management must first strive for transparency and reach out to the workers. Workers must endeavor harder to increase productivity, mitigating militant struggles and illegal demonstrations.

Lee also speaks of cutting taxes and the size of government, promoting business, and encouraging investment. He signals to farmers and fishermen to brace themselves for foreign competition, although Lee offers “tangible solutions” to ease the shock. He also promises much-needed educational reforms, although I don’t read any veiled threats against the militant leftists of the Korean Teachers’ Union (1, 2, 3). Then, after a rather perfunctory nod to improving U.S.-Korean relations, Lee says this:

Unification of the two Koreas is the long-cherished desire of the 70 million Korean people. Inter-Korean relations must become more productive than they are now. Our attitude will be pragmatic, not ideological. The core task is to help all Koreans live happily and to prepare the foundation for unification.

As already stipulated in my Initiative for Denuclearization and Opening up North Korea to Achieve US$3,000 in Per Capita Income, once North Korea abandons its nuclear program and chooses the path to openness, we can expect to see a new horizon in inter-Korean cooperation. Along with the international community, we will provide assistance so that we can raise the per capita income of North Korea to US$3,000 within 10 years. That, I believe, will both benefit our brethren in the North as well as be the way to advance unification.

Together, the leaders of the two Koreas, must contemplate what they can do to make the lives of all 70 million Koreans happy and how each side can respect each other and open the door to unification. If it is to discuss these issues, then I believe the two leaders should meet whenever necessary and talk openly, with an open mind. Indeed, the opportunity is open.

I’ll close by linking to Bruce Klingner’s take on Lee, which is well worth reading.


  1. Listen, you don’t have to include the Canadians in the Korean War if you don’t want to but just how did Chinese help to liberate Korea? Didn’t about a million of them cross the border to help Kim Il Sung?



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