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Saturday, April 10, 2010


Popular Lee's leadership on shaky ground

Staff writer

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak retains a relatively high level of popular support in his third year in office, but his political leadership remains shaky and local elections in June will serve as a test of his fortunes for the remainder of his term, said Yeo Hyeon Ho, an editorial writer for The Hankyoreh newspaper.

News photo
Moon Hee Soo (center) of The Korea Economic Daily discusses South Korea's economic challenges while Kwon Soon Hwai (left) and Chung Sun Gu listen. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

Lee has recently been touted for his "top salesman" role in a South Korean consortium's successful bid for a $40 billion nuclear power plant project in the United Arab Emirates. Such credit perhaps comes naturally given that voters counted on his talents as a former successful businessman in electing him president in 2007, Yeo noted.

South Korean media polls show support ratings of Lee's administration staying at around 50 percent — higher than any of his predecessors in the third year of the five-year term since the country's democratization, Yeo said at the Tokyo symposium.

Still, Yeo said it is questionable whether Lee can maintain leadership for the rest of his term. Analysis of the media polls show Lee's approval ratings much lower among people in their 30s and 40s, and some experts say the president remains popular only because the opposition forces are weak, he noted.

Since a South Korean president cannot run for re-election, Lee could go down the path of becoming a lame duck in the final two years of his term if his third year passes without major achievements, Yeo said.

Compared with his predecessors, Lee lacks solid supporters due to personal charisma and most of his top political aides started working for him relatively recently — either when he became mayor of Seoul in 2002 or during his 2007 presidential election campaign, Yeo noted.

Lee also does not have a strong power base within the ruling Grand National Party. Even though the GNP holds a stable majority, he lacks leadership in managing parliamentary business and has a hard time negotiating with powerful party leaders, according to Yeo.

He also faces criticism from the opposition that his economic policies are too near-sighted and that, like Japan, his administration has failed to address concerns resulting from an increase in the ranks of temporary workers and others not regularly employed in South Korea, Yeo said. Critics charge that the president has not done much to deal with the rise in the rich-poor gap and rising welfare costs for the elderly, he added.

The local elections in June, Yeo said, will serve as an indicator of voter sentiment on these and other issues halfway through Lee's term. The outcome of the polls will affect the fate of his government in the latter half — and possibly have an impact on the South Korean economy as the president is now seen as a key component of the nation's competitiveness, he added.

Yeo, formerly a chief of The Hankyoreh's political news division, also noted that the first six months of Japan's coalition government led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama reminded him of the previous South Korean administration of the late President Roh Moo Hyun.

Political slogans of Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan, such as "From concrete to people" and breaking down the bureaucracy's hold on power, seem to mirror what Roh promised during his 2002 election campaign, Yeo said. Just as Roh tried to keep a distance from the United States, Hatoyama has advocated an "equal" relationship with the U.S. and emphasizes closer ties with East Asia, he noted.

Roh's administration laid out various plans but did not achieve much while Hatoyama's ruling coalition seems to "have a grand design but is lacking in concrete action plans," Yeo said.

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