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Lee Myung-bak leaves Cheong Wa Dae with mixed scorecard

Publication Date : 22-02-2013

 

South Korea President Lee Myung-bak leaves office this Sunday with a mixed scorecard of his five-year term - generally high on international relations and economic crisis management but low on inter-Korean ties and domestic politics.

Pundits praise him for quickly plucking the country from the economic doldrums after the global financial meltdown, hoisting Korea’s standing in the international community and winning lucrative overseas deals.

But he is widely criticised for soured ties with North Korea, a string of corruption scandals implicating his associates, worsened economic polarization and failed consensus building on contentious government policies.

“South Korea’s economy is closely interconnected to the global economy. In that regard, macroeconomic indices suggest that Lee’s government performed well while tiding over the two serious economic crises,” said Yoon Pyung-joong, politics professor at Hanshin University.

“But in terms of microeconomics, economic polarisation has been rather exacerbated and the trickle-down effect Lee talked about was too little for average people to feel.”

Yoon added that the Lee government did not make full-hearted efforts to reflect public sentiment over a series of government projects or deals such as controversial US beef imports.

“The reason why his key achievements have not been well highlighted despite the clear good indices is that Lee did not appear quick to adapt to the historical change that calls for public consent as a basis for the implementation of government policies,” he said.

Among others, Lee’s Global Korea initiatives have gained generally good reviews. The initiatives have raised the nation’s profile in multinational diplomacy to reshape the global financial system, spread development and tackle climate change.

Observers said that Seoul’s hosting of the summit of the Group of 20 in 2010 and the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, and Songdo’s selection last October to host the Green Climate Fund helped turn the nation into a crucial stakeholder in the international order.

During Lee’s presidency, Seoul also succeed in returning to the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the years 2013-14, after some 15 years. Experts said the membership to the top body has further elevated the country’s diplomatic standing.

In what Lee touted as a historical turnaround, Seoul gained official membership to the Development Assistance Committee - a club of major donors in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development - in January 2010.

Another major foreign policy achievement for Lee is enhanced relations with Washington.

Under what Lee calls “practicality-based” policy, Seoul has restored trust with Washington, with which his liberal predecessors had differed over how to handle Pyongyang and the vision for the long-standing alliance.

The North’s relentless provocations have brought the allies even closer in their joint efforts for peninsular security, which culminated in their agreement last year to revise the bilateral guideline to allow Seoul to develop longer-range ballistic missiles.

During the former Roh Moo-hyun government, the Seoul-Washington relationship was strained. Vowing “not to kowtow to the US,” the liberal leader came to power in 2003 amid widespread anti-American sentiment triggered by the deaths of two girls run over by a US military vehicle during an exercise in 2002.

Lee’s achievements have been overshadowed by soured ties with a provocative North Korea, his insufficient communication with the public and personnel policy purportedly focusing on his regional and school ties and

During his term, the inter-Korean relationship has been sent to its lowest ebb in decades.

In a departure from his liberal predecessors’ policy of engaging the North with virtually unconditional aid, Lee adopted a reciprocal policy linking Seoul’s economic assistance to the North’s denuclearisation.

On top of it, Pyongyang’s fatal provocations in 2010 and a series of missile and nuclear tests including the recent one this month further worsened bilateral ties and ratcheted up military tension in the region.

Some observers highly evaluated Lee’s North Korea policy as “principled, consistent”, while many others argued that Lee had applied too much pressure to the North with little policy flexibility.

His personnel policy has been much criticised during his term. Although he claims professionalism and experience were key factors in picking his ranking government officials, critics argue that his picks were mostly from his hometown, alma mater or his church.

A string of corruption scandals involving his relatives and associates, including his elder brother former Saenuri Party lawmaker Lee Sang-deuk, have disappointed the public. His recent special presidential pardons to some of them drew sharp criticism.

During his farewell speech to the nation on Tuesday, Lee expressed “deep regret” over the corruption cases.

“Though I earnestly sought for an administration free of moral fault, I would like to express once more my deep regret that various matters around me caused the Korean people such concern,” he said.

 

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