Admit it: South Korea President Lee Myung-Bak Was Pretty Good


So President Lee has been out of office for a bit now, and the retrospection will begin soon. And while he left with really low approval ratings, I always thought that was pretty unfair. I am pretty sure history will be kinder to him than the SK public was during his tenure. Particularly the growing critique on the South Korea left that current President Park Geun-Hye’s many staffing gaffes means she is out of her depth also suggests that LMB was at least ready and professionalized enough for the responsibilities of the office. The essay below is a longer version of an op-ed I wrote for the JoongAng Daily.

In passing, I should say that yes, I am aware that this is the sort of column that drives folks like Glenn Greenwald, whom I really admire, up the wall. If you’re convinced, like my students, that I’m a conservative pretending to be a moderate, here’s your evidence. Call it shameless right-wing hackery, sycophantic shilling for the powerful, craven attention-seeking, but it’s also true: Lee Myung Bak was a lot better than most Koreans give him credit for and is probably Korea’s best president in its democratic history.

Most Koreans don’t think so. Like Bush 2, whom I think was his model, at least originally, he left office controversial and unloved. When I defend Lee to students, family, and colleagues I get regular groans: The Four Rivers Project has turned into another slushy, environmentally destructive, unnecessary white elephant vanity project (mostly true). The chaebol on Lee’s watch have become even more powerful and intertwined with Korea’s political elite (absolutely); desperately needed anti-trust action has not occurred (very true). Borrowing from the GOP, Christianity has entered Korean politics as a wedge-issue (I don’t really see that, but every Buddhist I know dislikes Lee). Crony capitalism and corruption are still a big problem (definitely), and the surveillance scandal (another bad Bush habit) means Lee may be indicted, continuing Korea’s ignominious tradition of prosecuting its ex-presidents. Lee did little break the nepotistic oligarchy that dominates Korea and so badly alienates its under-40s.

But here are four big things Lee has done right for which he, inexplicably, receives almost no credit:

1. Despite the Great Recession, which occurred on Lee’s watch through no fault of his own, unemployment stayed below 4% for his entire tenure and GDP never contracted. Wow. Obama would have sailed into reelection with that record; that is simply astonishing. American employment peaked close to 10%, and European unemployment more than tripled Korea’s rate. More generally, as the rest of the OECD entered a nasty recession, Korea did not; Korea grew, even in 2009. In fact, the Great Recession barely reached Korea. No banks collapsed. No European-style austerity riots broke out. Exports held up. A wisely-sought credit line from the US Treasury defended the won, which bounced back quickly after a one-year decline. For all the talk of inequality and ‘economic democratization,’ Korea’s Gini coefficient, a formal measure of inequality, is lower than in the US, China or Japan. Lee also pushed through two major free trade agreements, obvious boons to growth given how trade-dependent Korea. (The Korean left’s shameless demagoguing of deals so clearly healthy for an export economy was both intellectually dishonest and bad for growth.) If any western leader had this record of economic management in the last five years, they’d be hailed as the reincarnation of Adam Smith, yet Koreans seem unwilling to admit this tremendous achievement.

2. Lee also contained Korea’s debt and deficit during the Great Recession – an amazing achievement yet again, given the budget-busting we see in the EU, US, and Japan. During Lee’s presidency, the budget ran a deficit only once (in 2009), and debt as a percent of GDP rose just 2.5%. And somehow Korea’s aggregate tax take is just 23% of GDP while nonetheless providing universal healthcare and expanding free school lunches for children (a big issue here in the last year or so). Wow. Who else in the G-20 or OECD can chalk up post-Great Recession numbers like that? America has added some 5 trillion USD in new debt since 2007, pushing its total public debt stock close to 80% of GDP. Its deficit exceeds a staggering one trillion USD and cost the US its AAA credit rating two years. Mercifully, Korea entirely lacks the endless budget shenanigans that have crippled American politics for 30 years, with its regular threats to basic safety-net programs like Social Security. In Europe and Japan, it is somehow worse. Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio now exceeds a frightening and historically unprecedented 200%; nothing seems to make Japan grow (until now, we hope). And Europe of course is caught in triple crisis of political gridlock, harsh austerity, and the never-ending euro-drama. By contrast Korea has calm and well-managed budgets, reasonable taxes and acceptable safety-nets, despite the Great Recession. That Koreans won’t credit President Lee for this huge achievement just baffles me.

3. Lee ended South Korea’s role as the ‘sucker’ with NK while prudently managing crises like Yeonpyeong. In 1997, genuine rapprochement with NK was untested; Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy détente was worth a try. But by the mid-2000s, it was also clear that it had failed. The Sunshine Policy was evolving into permanent appeasement and, paradoxically, a lifeline for a brutal regime that regularly threatened and bullied SK. Lee was right to pull the plug without concrete change Kim Jong Il was obviously unwilling to make. Inevitably, NK hit back, and Lee managed the fallout well. He withstood the bizarre conspiracy theories from the left about the Cheonan sinking, while also muzzling conservatives ready to risk escalation after the Yeonpyeong shelling. The latter case was particularly dangerous, as the possibility of uncontrolled escalation loomed if hot-headed decisions to hit back were made. Lee wisely choose prudence over the ideological satisfactions of the Korean right and media.

In short, managing NK – without simply buying it off as the previous two presidents did – is extraordinarily hard, and Lee did a really good job given the weak hand he has to play. By weak, I mean things like the extraordinary concentration and vulnerability of SK’s population to NK strikes; the bizarre and genuinely disturbing sympathy of the SK left for NK; the growing belligerence of the SK right regarding NK (if another Yeonpyeong happens, a counterstrike is likely); and the awkward but necessary role of US forces in Korea in all this. Managing this tangle is very difficult, yet of existential importance to SK. I can’t see how any other Korean leader could have down substantially better, and worse could easily have occurred.

4. Lee reaffirmed the critical American alliance. Much of Korea’s latent anti-Americanism comes, understandably, from its very unequal, almost clientelistic, relationship with the United States. Korea is very dependent on the US, both for security and economic growth. For proud, nationalist Koreans, this is a bitter pill, and it leads to strange outbursts like the beef protests that were more about Korean pride against American domination than beef. But it is undeniably true that the US-Korea alliance hugely benefits Korea while providing no obvious gain for the US. Were NK to absorb SK, the US would scarcely be affected, as the Cold War is now over. Polling data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has found since the mid-2000s that only 40% of American want to fight in a second Korean war, even if NK provokes it. While NK is an obviously critical issue for locals like Russia, China, and Japan, not to  mention SK itself, the leninist global threat to the US, once represented by the DPRK, is long gone. Today Korea is simply one more issue among many for the US, including terrorism, Iran, Pakistan, the drug war in Latin America, and transnational problems like global warming and proliferation. Further, SK is more than capable economically of defending itself. SK spends a paltry 2.7% of GDP on defense, and Ron Paul’s traction last year in the US stems in part from the growing belief in the US that it is overcommitted overseas.

In short, it would have been very easy for the US-SK relations to drift further (as under Lee’s predecessor who dislike George Bush intensely), with the long-term result that Korea would stand alone. Given that Korea is encircled by large powers, plus NK, the external patronage of the US is very valuable. In the past, Korea was always in someone’s orbit (usually China). The US alliance helps forestall that now. Recognizing that US security interests here are waning, but great value of the alliance to Korea, Lee swallowed his pride and went to the Americans as his predecessors would not. The Korean outrage over the golf-car ‘incident’ shows just how touchy this can be for Korea’s sensitive to the obvious inequality of the US-Korean relationship. But Lee, unlike so many S Koreans, realizes that the alternative to the US tie is not full-throated Korean autonomy against the world, but isolation in a very tough neighborhood where S Korea is both small and vulnerable. Trying to hold the Americans here as long as possible is very wise, and Lee deserves great praise for grasping that uncomfortable truth over politically easier nationalist posturing of his predecessors. Like the NK issue above, this is existentially important to SK, and Lee made the right choice. That’s historic.

Bonus pride moment for Korea: Lee gave the Somali pirates the defeat they deserve, demonstrating, to everyone’s great surprise I think, that Korea can in fact project power. Nice.

Filed under: Domestic Politics, Foreign Policy, Korea (South)

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





Re: Admit it: South Korea President Lee Myung-Bak Was Pretty ...

A president is not automatically responsible for all the good things that happen during his tenure (nor the bad things, for that matter). You have to show that he deserves credit for the successes during his presidency (specifically points 1 and 2).