Korea’s presidents rarely have met a good end. I had sincerely hoped that Lee Myeong-bak would buck the trend; instead, as we are approaching the end of Lee’s tenure, he is increasingly looking like a wounded duck grimly marching toward the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant.
Four major issues are dogging President Lee, several of which were covered in this space. Listing them off, in no particular order:
(1) The Taxi Act. The National Assembly, in a rare showing of bipartisanship, passed an amendment to the Public Transit Law that included taxicabs into the definition of “mass transit.” Although it might be an interesting semantic debate to argue whether taxicabs count as mass transit, the substance of the amendment was simple — it was a mechanism to direct government subsidy to cab companies and cab drivers.
Korean public did not react kindly to this law, as the public opinion on cab service was not great to begin with. Sensing an opportunity to appeal to the public, Lee administration vetoed the amendment, and sent it back to the National Assembly. This is likely to force a standoff between Park Geun-hye and the administration, as the amendment was initially passed with bipartisan support.
(2) The Four Rivers Project. Yup, it’s seriously effed up. KRW 22.2 trillion down the toilet, and many more wons will be needed to maintain the crappily constructed dams. It is well-documented that Park Geun-hye never was a fan of Lee administration’s signature “achievement”; the politicians belonging to Park’s faction in the NFP, less so.
Lee administration is now taking an unprecedented step of having the Prime Minister’s office re-investigate the severely negative conclusion reached by the Bureau of Audit and Inspection. The move came under bipartisan fire, with the NFP Assemblymen pouring on just as much as the DUP Assemblymen.
(3) Lee Dong-heup. In what is likely to be its last major appointment, the administration nominated Lee Dong-heup, a former associate justice, to be the next chief justice of the Constitutional Court. LDH, however, just underwent what is possibly the most disastrous Assembly hearing (regarding appointment) in Korean republic’s history. He already admitted to gifting a large sum of money to his son without paying tax; lying about his address to get his children into better schools; abusing the government-provided automobiles; using government-sponsored trip abroad for a family vacation. Most problematically, Lee commingled government funds with his own money in the private bank account, and used the money to invest in money market funds. (Lee admitted to the commingling, but denied that this amount to embezzlement.)
Initially, NFP half-heartedly defended the administration’s choice, but is slowly coming around to suggesting that Lee withdraw his nomination, as it appears increasingly likely that Lee would not survive the full Assembly vote. This episode is serving as the final reminder of what has been a common theme among many of Lee Myeong-bak’s appointees — embroiled in petty corruption, and the administration’s inability to find anyone who is not tainted by the same.
(4) Presidential pardons. And finally, the news leaked last month that Lee Myeong-bak was considering a special presidential pardons of — who else? — Lee’s cronies who were imprisoned for bribery charges, including Lee’s brother and former Assemblyman Lee Sang-deuk. To be sure, presidential pardons of corrupt politicians has a storied tradition in Korean politics. But this proposed pardon is particularly brazen because it involves Lee administration’s own people. (Previously, the pardons were for politicians of the previous administration. For example, Kim Dae-jung pardoned Kim Young-sam’s son; Roh Moo-hyun pardoned Kim Dae-jung’s son.)
Park Geun-hye’s camp did not formally express objections, but pretty clearly signaled informally that it would not approve Lee’s pardon if it includes his own people.
Lee Myeong-bak should probably watch his own back, after all. Every one of Korea’s conservative presidents had his predecessor jailed, or attempted to. (Roh Tae-woo exiled Chun Doo-hwan. Kim Young-sam imprisoned Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo. Lee Myeong-bak was on his way to imprisoning Roh Moo-hyun, before Roh committed suicide.) As much as I wish for Lee to have a dignified post-presidency, the possibility of that is appearing to get smaller by day.