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2010/02/22 14:00 KST
(News Focus) Lee lays basis for full-scale reform but rough road lies ahead

By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- As President Lee Myung-bak marks the second anniversary of his inauguration this week, a mood of confidence is palpable throughout the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae.

   The positive atmosphere is in sharp contrast, however, to the sense of crisis that permeated the administration a year ago, as global financial woes helped plunge Lee's approval ratings to around 35 percent. Recent media polls show that public support for the president has rebounded to around 50 percent.

   Lee's aides triumphantly claim that the president successfully laid the groundwork for his full-fledged reform drive during the tumultuous two year period.

   "The Lee Myung-bak administration's most important accomplishment during the two years is that South Koreans have regained their confidence - a can-do spirit," Lee Dong-kwan, top public relations secretary at Cheong Wa Dae said. "It is the fruit of President Lee's philosophy that his policy should be evaluated by concrete accomplishments."

   South Korea has taken great pride in the fact that it staged a more rapid recovery from the global economic downturn than any other nation. The country, Asia's fourth largest economy, managed to avoid its first contraction in more than a decade by posting 0.2 percent growth in 2009. Seoul is also gearing up to play host to the G-20 summit of leading economies slated for Nov. 11-12, the first Asian country to host the premier forum on global economic cooperation.

   South Korea also became one of just six countries that have signed agreements on exporting nuclear reactors after it clinched a US$40 billion deal to build four reactors in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

   The presidential secretary claimed that the Lee government has won international trust through persistent and coherent diplomacy and North Korea policy.

   Lee's "pragmatic diplomacy" is centered on his push to bolster Seoul's alliance with Washington and to improve relations with Asian neighbors under his "New Asia Initiative," as well as for intensified efforts to secure a stable supply of energy resources.

   Seoul has also been encouraged by signs of change coming out of Pyongyang. The North has signaled its intention to rejoin the six-way nuclear talks, with the South holding fast to its position linking inter-Korean economic cooperation with progress in the denuclearization process.

   Looking to reverse the failure of previous rounds of talks with the North, Lee proposed a "Grand Bargain" aimed at striking a one-time package deal on dismantling the communist state's nuclear programs in a single step rather than in stages in return for massive economic assistance.

   In spite of such accomplishments, however, analysts say that still more needs to be done to address political rifts, education, labor-management relations, and regionalism. President Lee has three more years in office and is barred from seeking re-election under the Constitution.

   "Given what President Lee has done on the economy and some of the country's external affairs, the mood of confidence is understandable and I think his accomplishments should be fairly evaluated. But his work on domestic issues including education, labor-management relations, rifts between social classes, and regionalism still leaves much to be done," Kang Won-taek, professor of political studies at Soongsil University in Seoul, said.

   Park Hyung-joon, senior presidential secretary for political affairs, said the Lee administration has "clarified its vision for an advanced, top-tier nation and for green growth, and is focusing all efforts on using the global financial crisis as a chance for enhancing the nation's status in the international community."

   "From now on, we will step up efforts for national unity and political reform," Park said, adding that South Korea has become a country that all nations around the world want to befriend.

   The Lee administration, in fact, faces the daunting task of generating national consensus on its plan to scrap a project first announced by the previous government, which called for the creation of a new administrative town in the central province of Chungcheong.

   Lee's plan to transform Sejong City into a "business-science hub" has, however, provoked a serious backlash from local residents, opposition parties, and even from a rival faction within his own ruling Grand National Party.

   Professor Kang said a rough road lies ahead for Lee, with the Sejong City issue being one of the biggest obstacles that could serve as a key factor in local elections slated for June 2. Many view the election results as a vote of confidence for the president.

   "It is a de-facto mid-term election for President Lee and its results could affect his leadership," Kang said. "A longer-term problem is the internal row inside the Grand National Party, posing a real challenge to President Lee during the remainder of his term. He can't afford to be overly optimistic."

   Media attention has also been keenly focused on whether or when the president will hold a summit with the North's leader Kim Jong-il. Lee has said he is willing to meet Kim anytime and anywhere as part of efforts to denuclearize the communist neighbor and ease tensions on the peninsula.

   The president, meanwhile, has no plan for a special ceremony to mark his second anniversary in office, according to Cheong Wa Dae. He is expected to present his policy goals in a speech to be televised nationwide during a ceremony on March 1 to commemorate a popular uprising in 1919 against Japanese colonial rule.