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(News Focus) After 3 turbulent years in office, Lee braces for another rough ride
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) -- President Lee Myung-bak once likened his single five-year presidency to running on flatland, not on a mountain with a descent following an ascent.

   The comparison aptly represents his will to continue to work diligently through his tenure without being swayed by speculation about his lame-duck status, his aides said.

   "As media view our society from a power-oriented angle, they use the expression that I am coming down a mountain after climbing the peak," Lee said after a recent meeting with the Cheong Wa Dae (presidential office) press corps to mark the third anniversary of his inauguration that falls on Friday.

   He said he wants to pave the way for South Korea to become an "advanced, top-notch" nation so that his successor can work a bit more easily toward the goal.

   The Lee administration, however, faces a mountain of tough issues as it enters his fourth year in office.

   South Koreans are stricken by inflation, soaring rent and the protracted spread of foot-and-mouth disease. The ruling and opposition parties are on a collision course over the ratification of a free trade agreement with the United States.

   The government is in a dilemma over the locations of an envisioned science-business hub and a new hub airport for the southeastern region. Local authorities and lawmakers with constituencies in that region are lobbying hard to win the bids.

   Mounting criticism over the state spy agency's botched operation to steal arms procurement-related information from a visiting Indonesian presidential delegation is the latest setback to the Lee government.

President Lee Myung-bak is lost in thought at his office Cheong Wa Dae. (Yonhap file photo)

Political analysts say a rough road lies ahead for the administration.

   "For the Lee Myung-bak administration, the remaining two years in office are likely to be as tough as the past three years," said Yoon Chang-hyun, a professor at the University of Seoul.

   He added the president may become a lame duck on some politically sensitive issues earlier than expected, with presidential hopefuls flexing their muscles.

   In fact, a mix of confidence and worries is palpable at the presidential office.

   Cheong Wa Dae officials cite various opinion polls that show nearly half of South Koreans support the president's management of state affairs, despite a host of troubles so far.

   Months after Lee's inauguration, his leadership was hit by massive street protests against the resumption of American beef imports amid concerns over mad cow disease. A global financial crisis struck the country's economy.

   Lee's audacious push for scrapping a project by his predecessor to create an administrative town in the central province of Chungcheong was voted down in the National Assembly. His Grand National Party suffered a humiliating defeat in local elections last year.

   The conservative Lee government has struggled to handle military tensions with North Korea, highlighted by the communist neighbor's deadly torpedo attack on a South Korean warship in March last year and the shelling of a western border island in November.

   Cheong Wa Dae said such problems belie the government's economic and diplomatic accomplishments, including a quick economic recovery, robust alliance with the U.S., successful hosting of a G-20 summit and a contract with the United Arab Emirates to build nuclear reactors there.

   "We have done our best so far, and we will do so to the last. History will assess the current administration," a senior Cheong Wa Dae official said, requesting anonymity.

   He said the government will continue efforts to improve the livelihoods of low- and middle-income people and create a "fair society."

   On how to deal with North Korea, a longstanding source of ideological and political disputes here, the official reaffirmed that the door for dialogue, including an inter-Korean summit remains open, adding the government is considering the resumption of humanitarian aid for the impoverished communist neighbor.

   The most immediate test on the popularity of the three-year-old Lee administration will be the April 27 by-elections in four regions -- Gangwon Province, Bundang (south of Seoul), Gimhae in South Gyeongsang Province and Suncheon in South Jeolla Province.

   The main indicators will be general elections in April next year and the presidential polls eight months later.