June 10, 2008 | Commentary on Asia
President Lee Myung-bak confronts a deepening political crisis
that requires a bold proactive strategy to overcome the country's
factionalism and put South Korea back on the path to economic
Although the situation currently appears bleak for the Lee administration, three months into a five-year term is far too early to count the new President out.
Indeed, Lee faced similar low approval and intense public criticism early in his term as Seoul's mayor yet he went on to become widely popular by achieving his objectives.
Although Lee's decision to renew imports of U.S. beef triggered the current public protests, a series of policy missteps and a perceived authoritarian governing style had already caused a plummet in public approval.
The opposition parties capitalized on the souring of public mood by depicting the Lee government as rich, corrupt, and out of touch with the common people.
Opposition groups not affiliated with political parties but critical of Lee's policies fueled public health concerns by issuing inaccurate information or mischaracterizing the government's decision to re-open South Korea's market to the imports.
The bilateral South Korean-U.S. beef agreement was not, as the groups maintain, an impetuous decision by President Lee prior to his Camp David summit with President Bush.
Rather, it was a long overdue action which South Korea was required to take once the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) published its September 2007 ruling on the safety of U.S. beef.
Though South Korea was beholden to obey international standards, the Roh Moo-hyun administration and the 17th-term National Assembly lacked the political will to do so.
After Lee Myung-bak's inauguration, standing National Assembly members requested the required implementation be deferred until after the April 9 legislative elections.
Opposition Can't Take Yes for Answer
The protests have largely accomplished their original goals. For all intents and purposes, both countries have established a voluntary restraint agreement preventing the sale of U.S. beef older than 30 months.
Seoul has also announced place-of-origin and age labeling, stronger monitoring standards, and increase the number of health inspectors.
Protestors likely don't realize that U.S. beef is subject to stricter BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow disease) monitoring than South Korean beef. South Korea has not yet met World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) standards to qualify as a "controlled risk" country. The U.S. has already done so. Instead, South Korea remains an "undetermined risk" country. Conceivably, BSE may have occurred in South Korea but not been detected due to lax monitoring procedures.
The opposition dismisses any government acquiescence to its demands as insufficient or "insincere" since there is advantage in prolonging the turmoil to weaken Lee.
The demonstrations now encompass a wide range of disparate objectives including undermining Lee's pledges for rapprochement with the U.S. and implementing education reform, pro-growth economic policies, and more conditional engagement with North Korea.
House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand
President Lee must heal the rift within the governing Grand National Party. Though he will have a legislative majority in the 18th-term National Assembly, a significant number of those members, as well as many independents, are loyal to former GNP Chairperson Park Geun-hye.
To meet the objectives for which he was elected, the President should be magnanimous and recommend that "GNP defectors" be allowed to return to the party. President Lee should make concerted peace overtures to Park Geun-hye in order to restore public faith in his administration and the GNP.
A frustrated GNP initially tried to correct the Lee administration's policy stumbles through sympathetic criticism. As the street protests grew in intensity, the ruling party cut its losses by adopting populist stances, including embracing the opposition's demands for renegotiating the beef deal.
The GNP should realize, however, that adopting these divisive tactics gives advantage to the opposition and undermines Korea's ability to regain its economic strength.
Redressing the Problem
The Lee administration must move quickly because opposition groups have vowed to use several upcoming anniversaries to further incite public opinion against both Lee and the United States.
These anniversaries are June 10 (1987 pro-democracy movement), June 13 (deaths of two Korean schoolgirls in 2002 by a U.S. armored vehicle), and June 15 (first South-North Korean summit in 2000).
To regain the momentum for his policy agenda, President Lee must alter the political paradigm. A primary issue for the public is Lee's forceful, unilateral governing style.
Applauded during the campaign as a "CEO-style" president, Lee is now criticized for being autocratic and treating the citizens as corporate employees.
He should revise policy-making procedures to foster greater transparency and inclusion of opposition and public concerns.
His administration should proactively counter false allegations against U.S. beef safety and mischaracterizations of the KORUS FTA with a coordinated public diplomacy campaign.
Although President Lee should improve Blue House communication procedures to gain greater public support, he can't be overly accommodating to the fickle South Korean mood lest he become a political weather vane constantly shifting direction. Instead, the South Korean ship of state should be guided by constant, underlying principles.
For example, it is critical that South Korea ratifies the KORUS free trade agreement. The economic benefits for both South Korea and the U.S. are well-documented.
Completing the FTA is especially critical for South Korea. It will improve the country's competitiveness against regional economic rivals China and Japan; provide momentum for other critically needed economic reforms, and send a powerful signal that South Korea is receptive to critically needed foreign and domestic investment.
A prolonged crisis will hinder economic reform and drive away foreign investment. But if President Lee expeditiously implements critically-needed changes, he may not only weather the current storm but go on to fulfill his vision to improve South Korea's economic competitiveness and expand the country's global role. Even so, he is likely to face a volatile term in office with opposition parties and groups eager to find an excuse to reoccupy the streets in protest.
Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Korea Times