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By Choong Nam Kim

HONOLULU (Feb. 14, 2008)—When Lee Myung Bak is sworn in as South Korea’s new President on Feb. 25, the occasion will not represent a slide away from progressive and liberal politics, as some might fear, but rather a signal that the nation has settled in as a mature and stable democracy.

It will be a democracy that values its relationship with the United States and Japan and takes a more cautious approach toward building bridges with its brothers in the North.

Lee, a successful businessman who campaigned on a pro-business economic reform platform, marks the return to power of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) after more than a decade in the political wilderness. But more importantly, Lee’s landslide victory signals a return to a normal course of political and national management after 15 years of tumultuous rule by former dissidents and activists.

Some see this election as the return of conservative, Communist-hating politicians who value the longstanding U.S.-Korea alliance, particularly when it comes to defense issues. And they see it as the decline of liberal forces who valued rapprochement with North Korea and an international stance independent of the United States.

In truth, the election was less about the struggle between these two major forces in Korean politics and more about a yearning for pragmatic, stable governance. Thus, the GNP’s victory can be seen as more of a vote against the unpopular regimes that preceded him than as a sign of Lee’s personal popularity.

The coming of the Lee administration, in short, means Korea’s return to a political approach that values principles of democracy and market economy, continuity, and stable foreign relations.

The past decade and a half have been challenging times for Korea. Liberals, progressives, intellectuals, college students, white-collar workers and Christians who had long protested against former conservative governments finally found themselves in power. Their rise climaxed with the election of Roh Moo Hyun in 2002, when former dissidents and activists controlled not only the executive branch but also the legislature.

Unfortunately, these dissidents-turned-leaders maintained the mentality of the anti-government struggle and struck out on policies radically different from those of their predecessors. They paid more attention to rectification of past wrongs than to building a better future.

Such historical revisionism undermines the legitimacy of the Korean Republic while producing serious social and political division and conflict. This is seen in the so-called “Sunshine Policy” toward North Korea which promised better and more stable relations on the peninsula but had a serious impact on the long-running Korea-U.S. alliance.

While the former dissidents were popular at first, they soon lost their mandate as they demonstrated a lack of understanding of the basic elements of stable governance. They disregarded governmental institutions and neglected practical issues of state. What Korea ended up with was a dysfunctional government and serious mismanagement of national affairs.

Because these administrations believed they were pursuing a historical mission of “rectifying” Korean history, they became self-righteous and intolerant to criticism. They tried to oppress the opposition and the press, becoming authoritarian leaders not much different from those who preceded them.

As pro-democracy crusaders under previous authoritarian governments, they occupied the moral high ground. After taking power, however, they lost their moral legitimacy.

It’s true the former dissidents made considerable contributions to democracy, but they also failed to continue the momentum of national development that led to Korea’s great economic success. After a generation that saw Korea leap into the top ranks of the world’s economies, the nation began to stagnate.

Under the egalitarianism-oriented policies of the last two administrations, Koreans have suffered from deteriorating quality of life, skyrocketing housing and education costs, and social and political conflict. People began longing for a return to the tradition of organized, vigorous national development.

The natural result has been an exploding sense of nostalgia for the “good old days” of authoritarian rule. The popularity of Park Chung Hee, the very symbol of the authoritarian past, skyrocketed. People began to think more favorably of generals-turned-presidents such as Park and Chun Doo Hwan, whose efficient, task-oriented management focused on economic growth and maintaining good relations with Tokyo and Washington.

Lee comes into office as a former chief executive of the Hyundai Group, one of the key drivers of rapid economic growth in the earlier decades. After the turbulence of the past, he is expected to focus on bread-and-butter priorities.

Lee’s election also means better relations for Korea with traditional allies such as the United States and Japan. It will signal the end of unconditional massive economic aid for Pyongyang.

At home, it will be an “economy first” administration with a president who is less the nation’s top politician and more its top manager.

 

Korea will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Republic this year. The inauguration of the Lee administration will symbolize not only a consolidation of a mature democracy in Korea but also the beginning of its entry into the ranks of advanced nations.

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Choong Nam Kim is a Korea expert at the East-West Center in Honolulu, a former assistant to three South Korean presidents, and the author of a new book, “The Korean Presidents: Leadership for Nation Building.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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