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(News Focus) Lee faces full plate of tough issues in final year in office
By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) -- With potential successors gradually gearing up for December's presidential vote, President Lee Myung-bak does not have the luxury of slowing down in his final year in office as he faces a full plate of hard-to-handle issues, from the sluggish economy to a still-aggressive North Korea.

   Lee marks the fourth anniversary of his inauguration Saturday amid grim prospects for export markets, rising unemployment, a widening gap between rich and poor, intensifying politicking ahead of major elections and an increasingly rancorous North Korea.

   If that were not enough, Lee has to grapple with those issues with a mandate weakened by a series of corruption scandals involving his close aides and confidants and low approval ratings. By law, Lee is barred from seeking reelection after his single five-year term ends in February 2013.

   The National Assembly is unfriendly as well, with not only opposition parties but also members of the ruling Saenuri Party, now under the control of Lee's erstwhile rival and leading presidential hopeful Park Geun-hye, often defying Lee and challenging his policies.

   "This is a common situation that presidents in all countries with a single-term presidency go through ahead of leaving office," said Kim Hyung-joon, a politics professor at Seoul's Myongji University.

   Since the start of the year, Lee has repeatedly said he will work persistently until the last moment of his term to help the nation push forward through global economic uncertainty brought on by a eurozone debt crisis, and lay the groundwork for future growth.

   "We have to run with all our energy until we hand the baton over, so the next athlete can run at the same speed," Lee said during a workshop for government officials last month, comparing next year's power transition to a baton change in a relay race.

   Lee renewed that commitment during a press conference held Wednesday to mark this week's anniversary, stressing that the world is "in a truly unstable situation where the way forward is not in sight" as he spoke of the gravity of the global economic situation.

   "Therefore, I think my remaining year is as much important as can be," he said. "I will work my way forward without becoming careless or shaken even for a single day."

  
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks during a special press conference held on Feb. 22 to mark this week's fourth anniversary of his inauguration. (Yonhap)


Lee's past four years had no shortage of crises, both economically and politically.

   The first came just months after Lee took office in early 2008 when massive anti-government protests began over his decision to resume U.S. beef imports, and dealt a heavy blow to his fledgling presidency.

   A global financial meltdown occurred later that same year, raising fears Asia's fourth-largest economy might plunge into a crisis similar to one that battered the country in the late 1990s and took years of painful economic restructuring to overcome.

   "Looking back, I think the people chose me as president in 2007 handing me the mission to revive the economy," Lee said during the news conference. "When I was sworn in, I hoped I could meet people's expectations, but nobody knew such a big global economic crisis would come in my first year."

   North Korea has also been a constant source of tension during Lee's administration.

   The communist nation carried out a long-range missile launch and a second nuclear test in 2009, and mounted two deadly attacks on the South in 2010 -- the sinking of a warship in waters near the western sea border in March and the shelling of a border island in November.

   Last December, the autocratic leader Kim Jong-il died unexpectedly, leaving the provocative regime with nuclear programs in the hands of his untested youngest son and heir, Kim Jong-un, who is believed to be in his late 20s, and increasing uncertainties on the divided peninsula.

   Lee, who was elected with the biggest margin of votes in the country's history, has seen his approval ratings dipping -- to only 25.5 percent last week -- due in large part to the widespread perceptions that the wealth gap has widened because of his pro-business policies and the benefits of growth in big businesses have not trickled down to the working class.

   Other factors for his fall from favor include his insistent placement of long-term confidants in key posts, his unpopular project to refurbish the nation's four major rivers, a strain in inter-Korean relations escalated by his hard-line policy and a string of corruption scandals involving his close aides.

   Presidential officials say these negative images unfairly overshadow Lee's accomplishments, such as the quick recovery from the 2008 global financial turmoil; a series of massive economic deals, including a nuclear power plant construction project in the United Arab Emirates; and the nation's successful hosting of a G20 summit in 2010.

   Lee has said in his New Year's address and other speeches that the focus in his remaining year in office would be to help the economy steer clear of the latest global financial crisis, to curb inflation and unemployment, spur growth and keep tensions with North Korea under control.

   Lee also made clear during Wednesday's news conference that he won't compromise on the populist demands and policies pursued by political parties to woo voters ahead of April's general elections and December's presidential vote.

   "In any circumstances, I will firmly stick to my principles on core policies where the national interest and future are at stake," Lee said. "I won't do things that would burden the next administration. I won't do things that would burden today's young generations."

   Professor Kim said Lee should focus on a shortlist of core tasks in the coming months, especially non-political issues, such as improving the livelihoods of ordinary people, rather than trying to solve all the country's problems.

   "Then he should leave the assessment of his presidency to history," he said.

   jschang@yna.co.kr
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