Lee Myeong-bak’s last lame steps

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.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    4 diverse case studies of why governments are pure evil: graft and corruption, mass-scale theft (redistribution of taxes to special interests, e.g. subsidies to taxi companies), massive mal-investment/waste (combined with large scale redirection of “investment” funds into pockets of those connected to power), and cronyism. All these case studies contain these characteristics to varying degrees and varying mixes.

    This isn’t just a Korea thing; this is across the board government thing. About the imprisonment issue, the thing is, THEY ALL DESERVED to be imprisoned. Roh just just jumped before Lee could get him, and KDJ was simply lucky his successor was Roh.

  • nayacasey

    SalarymaninSeoul, I had similar thoughts. For some, this is proof about a particular party or person being unfit to rule, but I see it as yet another case of government failure. In America, the discussion is about Obama avoiding the “curse” of a second term.

    * * *

    “Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule—and both commonly succeed, and are right.”

    –H. L. Mencken

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    Wow, a Mencken quote. You and I will be friends.

    There has not been a person fit to rule in my memory, be that in Korea or back in the west. No name comes to mind, no party comes to mind. Invariably we are always left with the corrupt and the violent in power. Wars galore, redistribution galore, theft and graft up the wazoo, violence and coercion in everything. This is the life under a government, any and every government.

  • Cloudfive

    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”- Attributed to Lord Acton and others.


  • Adams-awry

    Think of the arrogance it takes to believe *you* are the right person to lead millions of people (whatever country you’re from). This is why we should fear all politicians.

  • roboseyo

    This is a good point, SalarymaninSeoul — I once started a discussion in a political economy of Korea class about how embarrassing it is that most of Korea’s former presidents have been indicted for various grafts, corruptions and shady dealings. The professor replied that as long as presidents continue doing indictment-worthy behaviors, it’s GOOD to see that justice even reaches to former presidents. After all… perhaps that gives us hope that sometime in the future, even presidents themselves will consider themselves not to be above the law, and wouldn’t that be nice!

    Cloudfive — the response to that quote is from a science fiction book — one of the “Dune” sequels by Frank Herbert suggests: It is not that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely… it’s more that “Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect any who seek it.” (Chapterhouse: Dune) — an insight sharp enough to convince me that science fiction isn’t always fluff. And for the record, the last president who could have been claimed to have absolute power in Korea was Park Chung-hee, and arguably Chun Doo-hwan… but Chun faced tons of labor protests in the Minjung movement that forced him to make a lot of concessions to labor groups, and Park Chunghee’s power wasn’t absolute enough to stop people from protesting, and ultimately from being assassinated… and that’s not even considering the way other regional interests, and the USA, have flexed their muscles to influence or constrain Korean policies and actions.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    More so, imagine the arrogance in believing yourself not only to be qualified to lead millions, but the ONLY one qualified to do so, heck, even a savior. Just such a person has his inauguration a few days ago.

  • lanseny

    Salaryman, I agree with your scathing condemnations of all governments. However, your belief in the unrestrained right of capital to exploit the working classes is loathsome. What good is political freedom from those who would govern us if the poor are still under the thumb of the wealthy who would dictate what their labor and their lives are worth. C’mon add a little ‘socialist’ to your ‘libertarian’, the two are not mutually exclusive.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    Ive lived under socialism, believe me, I will spit on a socialist..unless he’s on fire, then I’ll respectfully watch him burn.

    No, I won’t be adding any such thing to my libertarianism, thank you very much. But I’m still amazed the old line of “capital exploiting labor” still resonates. Here’s a clue: without capital, there is no
    labor. Without capital the ‘exploited’ laborer is a wretch on the edge of survival. Forgive me if I shed no tears for labor, though I am amazed how you are so ready to create this false dichotomy: capital vs labor without giving it any critical thought. Capitalism is not two opposing camps, it is people in both camps at once, people dropping in and popping out of each camp many times over a life time. It is people accumulating, or borrowing capital – or losing it – in a wonderfully dynamic system, which, if left alone, would not only create the best outcome for all, but without the enforcement of government, would see far less coercion and exploitation than you see today. But yes, if your point is that today’s system is a travesty, then I agree; but do not for a second think that the system we have today, where government shovels money to special interests (including, or rather especially banks and corporations), creates nearly impossible hurdles to market entry, sets up monopolies, destroys savings by inflation (yet another way to favor its favorites), and countless other examples IS CAPITALISM; it is nothing near to what capitalism is. We live in a world of corporatism: government and corporations in bed together, rigging a system for mutual benefit. The next step is invariably fascism, a close cousin of socialism.

  • Adams-awry

    Could you say all that without the hyperbole? (Or just take out all the adjectives?) You see, I think I might agree with some of what you’re saying, but I keep falling asleep before I reach the end.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    Here you go.

  • dlbarch

    I’ve been thinking about this post for the last week since TK first put it up, but hesitated to weigh in before giving it a bit of consideration. I can’t help but wonder whether the fiasco surrounding the Four Rivers Project will be the final arrow from the quiver undermining 2MB’s lasting presidential legacy.

    The Lee Dong-hyup appointment and the presidential pardons, while odious, seem to me a relatively simple reflection of presidential hubris. Similarly, the Taxi Act seems like a straightforward case of blatant bipartisan pandering. Nothing truly exceptional here.

    But the Four Rivers project I think will have a lasting impact, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not likely to disappear from the headlines anytime soon. This project needs multiple fixes, and that is going to cost a lot of money. This guarantees an ongoing press coverage that will allow for repeated attacks by the Opposition and incumbent administration alike over cost-overruns and crony backroom dealings.

    More importantly, the project’s multiple failures go to the heart of 2MB’s carefully crafted image as a competent administrator who led Korea past the 2008 global Bush recession and into an era of renewed economic growth. For all his excesses, 2MB was the bulldozer of Chonggyechon fame whose competence in large-scale construction projects was doubted by none.

    Except, except….

    The Four Rivers project was arguably 2MB’s signature endeavor, and one that would not have existed but for his sponsorship. Four Rivers was orders of magnitude larger than the Chonggyechon project, and it has now failed. Spectacularly.

    The egregious pardons and boneheaded political appointments will be quickly forgotten, I suspect. But Four Rivers is a lasting failure, and may not even be fixable. It is a particularly stunning failure by a man who built his political image around his supposed competence as an effective manager.

    2MB is no longer the bulldozer of Chonggyechon, but rather the godfather of one of Korea’s biggest construction boondoggles ever.

    And that is truly remarkable.


  • RElgin

    I could not have expressed this thought any better. This is the same guy that wanted to cut canals through the mountains and started epidemic of canal fever that swept through so many speculators’ hearts.

    My original misgivings about this guy were correct. The only question now is how much time will he end up serving and will Miss PGH give him a pardon at the end of her term?