02/28/2008, 00.00
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Lee Myung Bak, the beginning of a new era for Korea

by Pino Cazzaniga
Formally elected by conservatives, in reality he drew votes from across the political spectrum, demonstrating the population’s high expectations in his regards. The principal of his government, moving on from “the age of ideology into the age of pragmatism”.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – Mid morning of February 25, the immense green in front of Seoul’s Parliament building was virtually invisible: it was hidden by a crowd of tens of thousands who were waiting to applaud the new President of South Korea: Lee Myung Bak . 30 thousand of them had been drawn from all of the provinces, a cross section of society, as wanted by Lee.

In the front row, in a wheelchair,  9 year old Shim Sun Ah, who suffers from leukaemia: on catching sight of the  president, her pale face was transformed by a wide smile. “I wanted my daughter to have something to remember and be happy about this year”, her mother said who knows that her child has little time left to live.

Celebrations began at midnight when under law, supreme authority passed from the shoulders of outgoing president  Roh Moo Hyun, to Lee: at that hour another crowd was gathered around the Bosingang Bell, to hear in religious silence, the great bell rung by 33 citizens.  Usually the bell is rung on New Year’s eve, saluting the old year and welcoming the year to come…

In his inaugural speech Lee said: “At the juncture when we are beginning another 60 years of the Republic, I hereby declare the year 2008 as the starting year for the advancement of the Republic of Korea”. History throws a light on this allusion.  This year marks the 60th anniversary of the birth of South Korea (1948): six decades of painful labour: domination of an often cruel military dictatorship in the first four, followed by a further two under the leadership of the far from painful democrat party.

The symbolic density of the events on February 25 forces us to consider this date as a milestone in the history of the young nations development.

10 delegations from foreign governments took part in the inaugural ceremony, among them Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, US secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Chinese State advisor Tang Jiaxuan and Russian Prime Minister Victor Zubkov. All four of them went on to have private meetings with the new President.  Of note, all of these governments are part of the “six party talks” to resolve the North Korean nuclear crises.

The second characteristic is the democratic dimension of the event.  Lee Myung Bak was only formally the presidential candidate for the conservative party: in reality his received votes from across the political spectrum.   And he received many: almost 50% , his closet rival came in with only 20%.

But what really leads us to believe that we are witnessing a positive turning point in the economic and democratic development of the nation is the quality of the man that citizens have entrusted with the country’s leadership.  Despite his slender physic, he has been nicknamed the “bulldozer” thanks to his ability to deliver on projects, overcoming all obstacles, just like a bulldozer, but always with full respect of the people involved.

With great difficulty, working day and night, he succeeded in graduating with a degree in economics and commerce.  In  1965 he was taken on by Hyunday Construction, a onetime small construction company, that counted a dozen employees.  Thanks to his relentlessness and intelligence, he rapidly rose among the ranks as the little company was transformed into a leader in the sector.  At 35 he became it’s president.  Elected Seoul Mayor in 2002 he has modernised entire areas of the capital realising projects many deemed impossible.

Moving on from “the age of ideology into the age of pragmatism” is his government’s guiding principle.

In order to make Korea “an advanced nation”, renewing the economy is an absolute priority.  The programme he has put forward has three key points: a target national economic growth of 7%; increase annual pro capita income to 40 thousand US dollars within 10 years, transform South Korea into the 7th largest economy in the world.  Unity and hard work are the conditions. In his discourse he generously eulogised the virtues of his fellow compatriots in the first 60 years of the republic.  “The miracle of the Han river, he said, is in fact the brilliant crystallisation of our blood, sweat and tears”.

Pragmatism also in relations with Pyongyang. The two progressive presidents who preceded him, Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, chose the path of aid and concessions to the North as part of reconciliation efforts. Lee does not oppose opening up and is also willing to continue top level meetings but he does intend to drastically correct the methods. He promises abundant assistance in the form of investments but demands reciprocity and above all the dismantling of all nuclear arsenal.

 “Once the North has abandoned it’s nuclear program, he said, and once it chooses the path of openness, we will offer abundant assistance in order to increase the annual income per person to 3,000 US dollars within 10 years” (six times the current rate). And he added: “the leaders of the two Koreas have to carefully look at what they can do to make life better for the 70 million Koreans”.

On a diplomatic level, relations with the united States and Japan have immediately improved.  Lee’s election was warmly welcomed not only by the Bush administration, but by all Congress who unanimously approved a motion of congratulations for the new Korean president on February 7th. Roh’s anti-Americanism and his autonomous policies towards the North had blocked the realisation of the “six party” deal for nuclear disarmament.

Regarding Japan, the newfound understanding is even more significant: the Korean President’s pragmatism is shared by Japan’s premier.  There is the impression that Lee has shown particular deference to Yasuda even at a diplomatic level.  Their first meeting lasted 50 minutes and bore concrete results: an accord to immediately re-start “shuttle diplomacy” interrupted two years ago.  Following the encounter Fukuda said “I invited him to build a new era in relations between Japan and South Korea, and the president said he share d the exact same idea”.

Good relations are also in the air with the Chinese government, however they are conditioned to a degree by the North.  Recently he sent a special envoy to Pyongyang to urge the North Korean leader to complete the nuclear dismantling deal ahead of the American presidential elections. At the inaugural ceremony the Chinese presence was felt not only through the government envoy, but also a visible CCTV crew, who broadcast the ceremony live.  

Hopes are high for the new South Korean presidency but the “bulldozer” is not hiding from the difficulties that await him.  They will come above all from the opposition which already just one day after the inauguration, succeeded in blocking some of his ministerial appointments in parliament.

On New Year’s Eve, after the 33 gongs of the Bosingang Bell, citizens hold hands and sing “We want Unification”. In 1948, internal disunity led to the tragic reality of a divided peninsula.  The future of the “60 years of the age of advancement” depends on the unity of hearts.



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