Admit it: South Korean 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.

43 thoughts on “Admit it: South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak Was Pretty Good

  1. I have really enjoyed reading this. I live in the United States and don;t have much idea about how the South Koreans feel about Lee Myung Bak. After reading your article confirms my prediction on this. Thank you for posting.


  2. USA helps certain strategic countries around the world where they can use their land for their army purposes, not only to protect SK in its case, but to be able to take action against threatening countries around it. So you can’t really say that USA has no use of SK. Definitely agree with the rest though. Pretty good article, very informative. Appreciate it!


  3. Prof. Kelly:

    “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.”

    I might be willing to sign onto the first part of the statement on a qualified basis. (As in, LMB is so vilified that most Koreans rob him the credit for the few things that he did do right.) As to the second part, I respectfully yet vehemently disagree. Kim Dae-jung is a far better choice than LMB under the same four categories for which you praise LMB:

    1 & 2. Economics. If LMB’s performance in the global financial crisis was like Adam Smith’s reincarnation, KDJ’s performance in the ’97 Asian crisis was akin to God’s own. KDJ fundamentally altered the way Korean economy operated (chaebol-busting, liberalization, labor relations, etc.,) in order to sail Korea over the challenge. During KDJ’s administration, Korean economy went from a heavy industry-based one to high tech-based one, paving the way for Korea’s current status in the world. Clear advantage goes to KDJ here.

    3. North Korea. You agree that Sunshine Policy was worth a try, and KDJ did try. We can call this one a push.

    4. U.S.-Korea relations. KDJ’s administration also did a fine job managing Korea’s relationship with the U.S. Although things got a bit rocky in the later part of KDJ’s administration, but I think we can safely lay that on the feet of George W. Bush. This should be a push as well, although I would be willing to give the slightest edge to LMB if I were feeling generous.

    If we look beyond these four categories–which were supposed to be LMB’s best achievements–KDJ’s advantage goes from solid to overwhelming. Unlike LMB’s Four Rivers Project, KDJ’s signature public works project (i.e. national network of high-speed Internet) is in the running for the best national public works project in the world for the last century. Unlike LMB who saw democracy as an annoyance (and hence muzzled journalists and put civilians under surveillance,) KDJ embodied democracy.

    The last point, in fact, deserves huge weight. Democracy in Korea is still an ongoing project, and the damage that LMB did to it was significant. In the five years of LMB administration, more than 200 journalists were jailed or otherwise sanctioned for expressing opposing views. That simply cannot be tolerated in a democratic society. In my own ranking, I have LMB ranked behind Roh Moo-hyun for that reason. (


    • This is a strong defense of DJ – and you don’t have to say ‘respectfully.’ Please feel free to argue what every you like as long as its not shot-through with ad hominems.

      My problems with DJ are :

      1) he got suckered really, really badly by NK in the Sunshine Policy. Yes, it was worth a try, but evidence, such as bags of cash for KJI, was already showing up on his watch. DJ really blew it on the North’s continuing clandestine nuclearization in this context as well.

      2) DJ really missed a singular chance to break the chaebol in 1997/8. Instead, he nationalized their debts from reckless borrowing, because he was too feckless to stand up to Korea, Inc. That then turned a corporate debt problem in a national crisis – all to save a bunch of super-rich ‘Kangnam style’ cronies. Worse, he then returned Korea to business as usual – i.e., mega-oligopolies operating above the law with generous state support – as soon as possible by gutting the much-needed IMF reform package. And just to make sure the chaebol would never lack for state help again, he started stock-piling US dollars – ‘self-insurance’ – a practice which effectively punishes Korean taxpayers and consumers to reward well-connected richies in Seoul. More than any other Korean president, DJ had both the aptitude and the opportunity to de-concentrate Korea and break the rapacious, insular corporate oligarchy that makes a mockery of Korean self-government – and he didn’t. He choose to shill for Korea’s richest interests instead, and push costs onto the public.


      • (1) I must disagree with the Sunshine Policy assessment. I think you were being very fair in avoiding hindsight bias. If we put ourselves 15 years ago without knowing what we know now, we would have thought the Sunshine Policy was producing real dividends. In 2000, KDJ visited North Korea (first time for SK president) and made June 15 Joint Declaration. Gaeseong Joint Industrial Complex began construction in 2000. By 2001, Geumgangsan tourism opened for South Koreans.

        Again, without the hindsight bias, one can fairly say that all of the above represented significant progress. By the end of KDJ’s administration (i.e. 2002,) it was not unreasonable to expect that SK could open 10 more JICs, or open 5 more tourist areas in NK. Imagine how different North-South relations would have looked at that point.

        As to (2), I think you are simply incorrect. DJ did bust chaebol as much as he could. Daewoo, one of the Big 4 chaebols, completely evaporated under KDJ’s watch. Just 20 years ago, Kim Woo-joong, the founder of Daewoo, was no less of an entrepreneurial hero than Chung Ju-yeong or Lee Geon-hee. Now he is turned into a fugitive. In all, KDJ let more than 80 chaebols go bankrupt during the 97 Financial Crisis. That is not standing up to Korea, Inc.? Imagine the howls if Barack Obama allowed 350 of the Fortune 500 companies go bankrupt in the 2008-2009 period. That’s the equivalent of what KDJ did.

        In addition, KDJ’s national high-speed Internet network led to the sprouting of new tech-based companies like NHN and NC Soft, who are legitimately challenging the old guard of chaebols. That is not business as usual.

        I am also unnerved by the fact that you are entirely focused on economy and North Korea, without paying any mind to the progress of democracy in Korea. The Korea I grew up as a child was a fascist state, in which people could be tortured and jailed for saying the wrong thing. KDJ’s presidency–the first peaceful transition of power in Korean democracy–put the nails in the coffin for the dictatorship. This is an enormous achievement by KDJ, and I do not sense that you are giving this achievement the proper due. And in contrast, LMB did real damage to Korean democracy by suppressing press freedom and putting civilians under surveillance. In my mind, this alone puts LMB far, far behind KDJ, and in fact, behind Roh Moo-hyun as well.


      • Ok, you’ve got me re-thinking DJ. I appreciate that you have read enough of my work to know that I previously have defended DJ before against the hindsight bias you rightly decry. Thank you.

        I agree, and SK conservatives who attack DJ often do so unfairly. We agree on that. However, it was DJ who agreed to give KJI a suitcase of dollars to come to the inter-Korean summit, and it was DJ’s KCIA/NIS that blew the continuing nuclearization of NK at the same time NK was pretending to be nice. Those are pretty serious failures. My focus on NK comes from my strong belief that NK is the single most important issue in SK, regardless of chaebol-induced, export-uber-alles myopia:

        As for the economic focus, I think this is fair for LMB, because he steered Korea through the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression. No other Korean president faced anything like that, and his management is a huge success for which no one here gives him any credit. I find that just astonishingly, and cheap. So many countries went through huge turmoil, and the SK left fixated instead on the usual cronyism that plagues all Korean presidents, or spread wild conspiracy theories about the Cheonan sinking. I find that just awful. If unemployment here was 10% and SK unions were fighting pitched battles with the police, no one would be talking about press freedoms or whatever – although I do agree that LMB got a little ‘nixonian’ there for awhile.

        Also, I looked at the link you provided, with your own ranking of Korea’s best presidents. You put Park CH at number 2. If you really mean that (you called the Korea of your youth ‘fascist’), then it hardly seems fair to criticize LMB for his (regrettable and Park-ian) authoritarianism. You’ve put the grand master of Southern authoritarianism near the top.

        Finally, on your site, I could find no pedigree information. I am flattered that you have paid close attention to my writing, so would you mind telling me who you are, what you do, and so on. Genuinely serious academic discussions like this should not take place in the dark. Thank you, REK


      • As for myself, I am a humble blogger who is an attorney by day. I lived in Korea until my high school years, and currently I live in the Washington D.C. area. I have been blogging about Korea for several years, and people have been kind enough to take note.

        As to my own ranking of Korea’s presidents–I will point out that the ranking encompasses the entire Korean history since the independence rather than just the democratic era. You would also find that all other dictator-presidents are ranked toward the bottom. I loathe PCH, and it drives me up the wall that his daughter is currently the president. But I am not so ideologically bent to ignore PCH’s history-defying achievements with Korea, notwithstanding his grave failings.

        Having said that, I think we have different priorities. The single most important issue for South Korea is, and should be, South Korean people’s freedom and quality of life. That is the paramount normative goal for a democracy. All other issues are to be judged by the extent to which they affect South Korean people’s freedom and quality of life. The fact that you are still yet to discuss in depth the damages that LMB caused to Korea’s democracy is very unnerving. We are now receiving news that LMB used the NIS–the spy agency–to interfere with domestic politics and the presidential election. How could this not factor into your assessment of LMB in a significant way? Are you not interested in democracy? (Maybe a more nuanced question might be: are you content as long as a country achieved a minimal level of democracy?)



      • I do not believe that North Korea is the most important issue for South Korea. If you recall the dictatorship era, such stance very easily lends itself to justifying oppression upon South Koreans. A massive historical irony is that Korea’s dictators, in doing everything they could to paint themselves anti-communist, made South Korea not much different from North Korea from the perspective of an ordinary person living in either country. As I stated earlier, North Korea issue matters only inasmuch as it affects the lives of South Koreans. If South Korean government uses North Korea as an excuse to oppress its own people, the bigger problem is the South Korean government–because it is a more direct threat to South Korean people’s freedom.

        Further, the NK policy failings that you point out cannot be laid on KDJ’s feet. Again, we must avoid the hindsight bias. $450 million (=compensation for the Inter-Korean Summit) is a pocket change compared to what was expected to come in North-South relations at that time. As to nuclearization of North Korea, NK’s first nuclear test was not until 2006. KDJ’s term was over by 2002. One can (and I do) blame Roh Moo-hyun for failing to deter nuclear North Korea, but it does not make sense to blame KDJ for it. By that logic, 9/11 was Bill Clinton’s fault. (I suppose a number of people do subscribe to that logic, but I find it silly.)

        I also find it severely incorrect that the 2008 financial crisis was worse than the 1997 financial crisis, as far as Korea is concerned. I find that perspective America-centric. (Recall that even the Great Depression was not as big a deal in Asia.) Korea was a direct participant of the 1997 crisis; the contagion was overwhelming Korea. In contrast, Korea was largely disconnected from the contagion in the 2008 crisis–which is precisely why Korea was largely unaffected by the 2008 crisis, NOT because of any special leadership quality that LMB had. In fact, LMB sought to integrate Korea further with the American financial system. It is by sheer dumb luck that LMB did not have enough time to plug Korea into that system, because it would have tied Korea to a sinking ship. Thus, KDJ’s handling of the 1997 crisis is incomparably more impressive than LMB’s handling of the 2008 crisis.

        If you are not convinced, try this exercise: what did KDJ do in response to the 1997 crisis? Pretty much change the shape of the entire Korean economy. More than half of the largest chaebols were gone. Transitioned heavy industry-based economy into high tech-based economy. Ended the system of lifetime employment and guaranteed retirement. Liberalized banking to stir up the domestic demand. In contrast, what exactly did LMB do in order to sail over the 2008 crisis? Not much! He only had to tinker with the currency swap just in case the liquidity crunch came toward Asia. (And it never did.)

        During the 2008 crisis, Korea was so flush with cash that it actually had the money to rescue Lehman Brothers, and it came close to doing that. Although it was wise for Korea (Korea Development Bank, to be precise) to not have done so, it would have been a delicious irony if that deal went through. During the 1997 crisis, American economists were sitting on the perch, pointing and laughing at all the things that the Asians were doing wrong. The tables were turned in the 2008 crisis. Korea was at a fundamentally different place for the 2008 crisis, and while sailing over that crisis deserves credit, the credit is not large enough to negate the damages of Korea’s freedom and democracy, much less to place LMB as the best president in the democratic era.


  4. My only real gripe with this parsing is with the terminology. I’m simply not convinced the LMB was a conservative. Party A is hyper-nationalistic, believing in a pristine past of self-reliance and moral purity which never existed; it antagonizes allies and foreign nations and demonizes immigrants and foreigners. Party B prefers practical modernization and encourages trade and cultural relationships with foreign nations and newcomers. In the US we would call Party A Republican and B Democrat, but in Korea A seems like the Roh government and B seems like LMB. Thus I don’t feel you need to say you support LMB in spite of his association with Bush Jr. I don’t see much of a connection.

    It sounds pretentious to say, but can we assess LMB’s success already, or is his unpopularity just political griping? If NK falls five years from now from a succession of SK presidents who stand up to the gangsters and refuse to pay the protection money, we might be praising LMB as the first with the backbone to stare down evil, and damning Roh/DJ as the Neville Chamberlains who tried to buy “peace in our time” and for antagonizing the Americans for cheap political points. This is my prediction; it may not be true. But I think our evaluations of LMB are really speculative for now. He reminds me more of Canadian PM Stephen Harper, a tepid but competent man who is disliked at home by many for a lack of charisma more than for anything substantial.


    • Party A is hyper-nationalistic, believing in a pristine past of self-reliance and moral purity which never existed; it antagonizes allies and foreign nations and demonizes immigrants and foreigners. Party B prefers practical modernization and encourages trade and cultural relationships with foreign nations and newcomers.

      This description is so terribly wrong, I don’t even know where to begin. Just to give you one example: if you are in Korea, Korea’s Progressives are the ones who gave you the freedom to state your opinion, and the practical ability (= Internet) to let it be known to the world. Think about that for a bit.


      • I dunno… The left in Korea can get pretty wrapped up in the minjeok stuff and loopy anti-Americanism. I was here for both the beef protests and the Cheonan ‘debate,’ both of which said a lot more about Korean pathologies about foreigners than it did about the Americans or LMB


      • Here again, I will have to disagree, but it will be too far off the tangent to discuss the Mad Cow Protests and the Cheonan fallout. All I will say is that if you were in Korea during the time of, say, 김근태, you would be viewing Korea’s progressives in a very different light.


      • I agree with both keneckert and you here entirely: The Korean left is more than often hyper-nationalistic and sometimes has reminds me of right-wing parties in other countries. TK may be right, that the progressives fought for many of the freedoms that Koreans–as well as foreigners living here–enjoy today, but over the last decade they have wrapped themselves in the Taeguki and bellowed the tired slogans of anti-Americanism so many times that I just shake my head at their silly antics. You’ve already pointed it out. And yes: The Sunshine Policy was an abject failure and LMB was right to abandon it once and for all.


  5. Hi professor Kelly!

    With my limited knowledge of Korean politics, I must say I (strongly) disagree with your opinion.

    In fact, I think that Lee Myung-Bak is probably the worst president in Korea’s short democratic history, for the precise reason that Lee pretty much ended democracy in Korea. During and after LBM’s tenure as a president, it is a well-known fact that media freedom has dropped significantly (I use the word “significantly” as a quasi-euphemism).

    You already know about the Korean who was arrested for his anti-LMB tweets just before his election, right? You also do mention the Four Rivers Project. Have you ever traveled around Korea much? LMB pretty much destructed and polluted the whole country’s waterways with what is still a bafflingly incomprehensible project to fill in the pockets of the CEOs of his buddies he used to hang with back when he was at Hyundai. Still, when I travel around the peninsula I get to see all the leftover from the botched construction that essentially destructed the only remaining nature that could be seen.

    Oh, and I believe you didn’t mention that LMB wanted to sell Incheon Airport to foreign investors! The reason is, of course, still unknown, given that the airport has been ranked has the best in the world for past several years, and thus it is doing pretty good business. Oh, and in between that LMB’s brother was arrested and taken to a detention centre after a court approved a warrant on bribery allegations.

    I remember too that LMB named Hyun Byung-chul chief of the National Human Rights Commission for another term (3 years) despite opposition allegations of a series of ethical lapses against him. The National Assembly held a confirmation hearing for him, but did not approve the nomination, as the main opposition party claimed his ethical standards are questionable.
    The opposition raised allegations of plagiarism, real estate speculation, draft dodging by his son and other ethical lapses.

    I heard LMB even gave himself a couple of gold medals, each worth over 100K if my memory serves me right. That’s right, he gave himself prizes for being a good president!

    Under Park Geun-Hye the situation has only deteriorated, of course. The scandal stricken president’s ex-representative, Yoon Chang Joon, has pretty much (mysteriously) disappeared from the news right after he was on the headlines during 2 or 3 days for sexually assaulting a Korean-American embassy staff. It’s quite interesting, really; nobody knows what happened to him these days.

    While Korea’s economy did do well even following the 2008 financial crisis, how much can LMB be credited for the country’s economy? Koreans are some of the hardest working people on earth. The economy was already doing better than ever before LMB became president. In regards to the FTAs, while I am a proponent of Free Trade in general (well, there is no such thing as “Free Trade” really, but it does work in theory), the large conglomerates essentially control the Korean market very tightly and they are pretty much the only ones able to import mass-consumption goods from the EU and the US. If we look at the actual prices before and after the FTAs, the changes are ridiculously minimal, and in general imported goods in Korea still remain grossly overpriced.

    Meanwhile, the suicide rate has only soared during LMB’s tenure, and the gap between the rich and the poor has proportionally increased. LMB busied himself building private elite schools imported for Britain and the US. Apart from the suicide rate, the “house poor” crisis has also significantly grown and bad credit is getting out of hand.

    So I’d like to see your take on all these things. I think that any reasonable person would see LMB as a horrible president from any angle, really. It is sad but South Korea is slowly reverting to a quasi-dictatorship.


    • Yeah, this is the kind of stuff my students say too. 🙂 I am a right-wing hack defending the powerful and all that. Ok.

      I guess I would just say that I broadly support privatizing stuff in Korea. This is one reason I liked LMB. The Korean state is too big and too corrupt. Putting stuff into the market is good for a country addicted to statism. And an unwillingness to sell Korean assets to foreigners is just xenophobia and mercantilism – exactly the traits Korea needs to overcome. If Korean firms can buy foreign assets, why not vice versa? The real reason of course is Korean nationalism, but that’s hardly a good, intellectually defensible position consonant with WTO reciprocity. Same goes with the FTAs. The deals with the EU and US should de-concentrate and shake-up the old boys club of Korean big business and finance. I do realize that is controversial in Korea, but I do think those are good things.

      Also, some things are really not LMB’s fault, like spiraling suicide, divorce, and alcoholism.

      Finally, inequality in Korea is actually much better than most Koreans think. The Gini coefficient here is lower than in the US, Japan, China, and most of the world, but for the EU.


      • You didn’t reply to any of my arguments, Robert.

        I’m not sure I follow your chain of thoughts, in any case. The economy is doing well thanks to LMB, but the spiraling suicide, divorce, and alcoholism is not? Where do you draw the causation, then? As for the Gini coefficient, why compare it to other countries? In all frankness, no country in the world should try to compare itself to the US… (and I mean China, really?) It would be better to compare Korea’s gini coefficient to what it was before, like 1 or 2 decades ago.

        As far as privatization is concerned, privatization can be good, but why privatize a state asset that is doing pretty well and earning good revenue to the government as well as being an icon of pride to Koreans? Plus, airports in general do not tend to get privatized, for national security reasons among others.

        Lastly, all of my other arguments were basically ignored: Four River Projects, LMB’s brother going to jail, LMB giving himself trophies, reduced freedom of press and lack of democratic processes, re-appointment of Hyun Byung-chul as chief of the National Human Rights Commission, etc.


      • If you like privitization, you should like KDJ even more. KDJ privitized POSCO, KT&G, Korea Telecom, just to name a few.

        If you like internationalization of Korean economy, again you should like KDJ much, much more. During KDJ’s five years, KDJ attracted 2.4 times of FDI into Korea than the past 36 years combined. The number of foreign firms investing in Korea tripled between 1997 and 2002. Repeatedly in his speeches, KDJ emphasized how there was no such thing as a Korean company and a foreign company any more; any company that creates job in Korea should be considered a Korean company.

        (In fact, the above two points are the ones that Korea’s progressives grumble about KDJ!)


  6. I would have agreed with everything you wrote, if I hadn’t learned that LMB is the reason I can no longer view internet porn (at least, not without a VPN). NK and the economy are important issues, but unlike porn, they do not affect me on a daily basis.


    • Hah! That was funny.

      I know internet porn is blocked in Korea. Is that because of LMB though? I didn’t know that. What were the circumstances of that? I don’t recall a big fight over that or anything. Was that a ‘Christian’ policy initiative, like in the US?

      And what is a VPN? What does that mean, and does it allow one to get around blocked websites? It would be awfully nice to get access to North Korean websites without the National Security Law blocking me all the time.

      Thank you.


      • My mother once told me Koreans like other “Asians” like to bandwagon around a central “leader”. Because we would rather trust them to do their thing rather than be “participative” and if anything goes wrong we can blame everything on them.

        Exhibit A: blaming LMB for the increase in suicides, alcoholism, and divorces.

        Next time someone around me divorces I sure as hell know who to blame then. Heck blame everything on LMB on their suicide notes LOL

        Funny stuff on the Korean internet where celebrity scandals are deemed as cover up efforts by the government to cover up their own scandals. Thus many right wing netizens refer to LMB as “Godka” mix of God and “gakka” meaning something like “Mr President”, for his supernatural ability to cover things up.

        And I believe the internet porn thing is due to the Ministry of Gender Equality. Because of course they reckon porn along with prostitution ‘increases’ violence and sexual assault on women. 😦

        And to Sam’s points about privatisation. So with your logic, privatisation is a means to offload under performing state assets?

        Basic finance 101, you are suppose to sell when things are good. Bet you didn’t like the Loan Star debauchery either.

        I have no idea how privatising partially an airport would hamper national security, and would like to point out the fact that most of the world’s best run airports are privatised such as Singapore etc.

        And the less money in the pockets of government the better I say. Don’t try and instill morals into politicians, just keep the money away from them to start with.

        I also DETEST how Korean banks are becoming ALL state owned nowadays with EVERY bank head ‘appointed’ by the government.

        They talk of becoming the financial capital of Asia, but they still operate in the PCH era of state led finance.


      • Given that there is a connection between porn and sexual assaults, and not to mention sex slavery, I’d say I’m damn proud of the Koreans. They don’t get everything right (reading about their presidents can be like a history of facepalming itself), but I love that they can be politically incorrect when it’s right to do so. Bravo!


    • Thank you, Connie. I have read that they were never left alone together. Her mother was a constant chaperon. No-esthe-lens, they seemed to find a means to communicate.


  7. On the related issues of managed trade deals and currency manipulation, South Korea has for a long time been identified as a currency manipulator, at least since the ’97 when the Clinton administration pumped up the dollar to allow the won to fall in value, thus giving South Korean firms a competitive advantage by which to export out of recession. Also, there’s the disagreement between Seoul and Tokyo over the BoJ’s bond and currency manipulation.

    I’m really surprised to hear you use free trade with a “straight face”. Perhaps if you just happen to be employed at a firm that it fortunate enough to be a signatory to a deal and hire lobbyists to grease the right negotiator, you can say that free trade benefits you. What about the charges that the TPP is about weakening regulations and strengthening intellectual property rights.

    What about GSO/MIA?

    I think before we extol a client state for working well within the parameters assigned it, that we agree about the criteria for calling it a success. That also means that we scrutinize what we believe success means, which also requires it be falsifiable. Clearly, the South is more successful than the North. But, it’s clear the South will never fail. It didn’t fail when it was a basket case compared to the North. For that matter what is the economic value of the American security commitment? I think our criterion for success should be whether South Korea could perform with real sovereignty.


  8. Nice piece, thanks for that. But it looks like cherry picking data to support a claim. Consider a few examples.

    There is no universal health care system in Korea. It’s a blended system of gov’t subsidies and user fees. Sure the system looks cheap when someone needs antibiotics to treat a chest infection, but serious health problems require expensive private insurance or lots of cash.

    Unemployment is high and probably under-reported. If your students have a hard time buying the argument that Lee was good for the country as a whole, I suspect it’s because job prospects are bleak, and not likely to get better in the near future as long as the chaebol continue to create jobs in other Asian countries.

    I might be wrong on this point: the free school lunch program was a Seoul city municipal initiative, not a national program. If true, you might want to take a little shine off any claim that Korean social services seem decent compared to the level of taxation. Let’s be honest, the aggregate tax rate might be comparatively low but the quality of social services is nothing to get excited about.

    You talk about debt levels. I wonder if your figures include liabilities assumed by quasi-public bodies like subway corporations. Actual nation-wide governmental/public corporation debt levels are much higher though hidden or buried because they are shoved into other agencies (whose liabilities are backed by national and local gov’ts). This is not directly related to President Lee per se, but that’s the point: some of the indicators you use to measure Lee’s governance do not accurately reflect his policies, decisions or performance.

    You note that Korea’s aggregate tax rate is lower than that in some countries. Put that into perspective: most western countries have seen that rate remain steady (or dip slightly) over the last decade while Korea is one of the few countries to have an increase in aggregate tax rates.

    You suggest that Korea has acceptable safety nets. I’m not sure what you are speaking of in this regard. The pension system, for example, is not prepared for the waves of people who are going to retire. Today, the pension system looks like a Ponzi scheme: pension contributions are rising to pay for today’s retirees with lingering questions about how to fund future liabilities.

    Thanks again for an interesting read.


  9. Pingback: My ‘Diplomat’ Interview: the Inter-Korean Talks Collapsed over a very Korean Hang-up over Rank and Status | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  10. Where do you get your information other than the numbers you used to comapare numbers from Europe and the US? (I cannot agree this is a good way to measure LMK’s performance but this is minimal compared to the lack of evidence of your knowledge of SK.) I am asking this as unless you are fluent in Korean and have very good access to information other than the mass media, as wrongful prosecution of many journalists indicate, you simply have no idea how much corruption there is in Korea including those that are persistent in corperations. This is one reason why privatization of public sevices has very little to do with reducing corruption.

    Your statememt below, while I respect that you are entitled to your opinion, is extremely limited to your derivation of the assessments that are both limited in scope and in-depth knowledge needed for a sound judgement of his presidency other than the ones that are short term and US/NK related.

    “probably Korea’s best president in its democratic history.”

    I will not mention scandals surrounding LKM or sources of information. Rhere are simply too many. While many are speculations, it would be most inadequate to simply dismiss them. It seems that you have not yet understood that this country has a lot more going on than what’s on the surface.


  11. Pingback: My last Lowy February Essay – Review of Park Geun-Hye’s first Year as Korean President | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  12. Pingback: Park Geun-Hye’s Presidency is Turning into Status-Quo Maintenance | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  13. Pingback: On 25 February in Asian history | The New ASIA OBSERVER

  14. These are results observed without considering how they were achieved. Minimum wage was increased at the lowest rate in decades. Unemployment was low but there was no increase in regular jobs.

    Yeonpyeong was a disaster. ANY president would have responded the same way. If LMB had done his job he would have prevented the disaster, not repond to it, as other presidents before him had done.

    People lost freedom of speech and freedom of protest. LMB planted aggressive protestors to create an excuse for using force and water canon attacks on ALL protestors. This is democracy receding as far back as the 1970s.

    4 river project is not just an environmental problem. It is corruption at its worst. LMB disregarded scientists and environmentalists advising that longer research is needed to adequately assess the impact of the project. At least 1 yr research was recommended but LMB’s team of researchers rushed to a conclusion after less than three months. Why all the hurry? REBATE. MASSIVE CONTRUCTION COMMISSION REBATE from the construction companies that would participate in the project. Anyone who works in Korea knows that these rebates take place everywhere in Korea big and small. Whether you’re buying office supplies or jumbo jets, rebates are there as a token of gratitude. The 4 rivers project was scaled to cost tens of billions of dollars. Even a modest 2 percent rebate to LMB is something he would never have wanted to miss.

    And you don’t seem to be aware of the fact the SK pays the US for armed forces. Also if the alliance broke, the US would lose all military bases and would be pushed further away from the China.


  15. Pingback: On 25 February in Korean history | The New ASIA OBSERVER

  16. What goes around comes around. Remember back when Lee Myung-bak went after his rival Roh Moo hyun, causing him to kill himself. Well, now look at Lee, Sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes which make what he tried to charge his predecessor with look like child’s play. Bak, the only convicted criminal of the two will most likely live out the rest of his life in jail. Smile, bakky boy. You never looked so good in a blue jumpsuit. HYPROCRITE!


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