Just sworn in, Lee Myung-bak already seems out in the cold
His thunder stolen internationally by the arrival of the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang, Lee Myung-bak was sworn in as South Korea's 17th president on February 25th. In freezing weather in Seoul, Mr Lee pleaded for support. The audience, mostly from his Grand National Party (GNP), dutifully applauded—but with little enthusiasm. The president, elected last December, has made a poor start to his five-year term.
Mr Lee, cleared this month of any wrongdoing in a failed investment scheme, nevertheless faces public suspicion over the past business dealings that made him a multimillionaire. And some of his nominees for cabinet posts are already under clouds. Three of his ministerial choices—for sex equality, “unification” (ie, dealings with North Korea) and the environment—have resigned over criticism of their property dealings. This is a highly sensitive issue in Seoul, where many cannot afford to buy their own homes. Some of his nominees' children are foreign citizens. One was thus able to dodge the mandatory military service. This has raised hackles. Most South Koreans cannot afford to send their children abroad to acquire foreign passports.
Most economists think Mr Lee's bold promise of 7% annual growth is optimistic. His plan to build a canal system on the peninsula has united a coalition of civic and political groups in opposition. And his call for a “pragmatic not ideological'' relationship with North Korea has perturbed American leaders. In addition, Mr Lee has had to scale back his plans to trim the bureaucracy. Instead of 13 government ministries there will be 15, down from 18 under his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun.
The president's difficulties are compounded by his shallow political base. In a pun on the name of a famous actress, South Koreans call it “Ko So Young”. “Ko” refers to his alma mater, Korea University, which has supplied him with prospective ministers and aides; “So” to the church he attends; and “Young” to the south-east of the Korean peninsula, which voted for him in huge numbers largely because Mr Roh is widely loathed in the region.
Even within the GNP, Mr Lee has few allies. Party heavyweights have long viewed him as an upstart without their own conservative convictions. Mr Lee is indeed a pragmatist. His landslide victory in December owed much to his success during his time as Seoul's mayor in solving practical problems, such as his reorganisation of the capital's traffic system.
Park Geun-hye, whom Mr Lee defeated to become the GNP's presidential candidate thanks to its system of open primaries, still commands more support within the party. She is engaged in a fierce struggle with him to have her nominees chosen as the GNP candidates at April's legislative elections. If she wins, or the GNP loses the election, the new president's legislative programme could be stymied.
Mr Lee is a somewhat remote and cold figure. He now needs to make himself popular. But both the economic and political climates on the peninsula seem to be worsening. Even when the snow that blanketed Seoul within hours of his taking the oath of office thaws, South Koreans may not warm to him.◦