Timing of former President Lee's memoir raises eyebrows

Timing of former President Lee's memoir raises eyebrows

The announcement that former President Lee Myung-bak's memoir will be published on Feb 2 has sparked controversy in Korea's political circles.

Coming just 23 months after the end of his term, "President's Time" will focus on the policies that shaped the Lee administration.

The most contentious issues covered in the memoir include the major project to refurbish the country's four major rivers, dealings with North Korea, and the former president's push for development projects in other countries.

The statements in pre-released excerpts quoted by the media have come under strong scrutiny, considered by some to have political significance beyond defending his legacy because of its timing. The memoir comes just as the National Assembly begins a probe of past administrations' alleged waste of public funds on fruitless natural resources development projects overseas.

Media organisations with advance copies of the memoir have reported that Lee is steadfast in defending his policy decisions in the book, particularly with respect to his energy diplomacy efforts.

In an excerpt published by Yonhap News, the former president writes: "Energy diplomacy involves long-term projects that take about 10 to 30 years to see their results," piquing that the opposition party's criticisms of his policies are premature and shortsighted. He also writes that the direction for his administration's energy diplomacy was under the purview of then-Prime Minister Han Seung-soo.

Kim Seong-soo, the spokesman for the main opposition party New Politics Alliance for Democracy, targeted these statements saying that the former president is strategically guiding blame away from himself ahead of the parliamentary probe.

On the other hand, former presidential secretary for public relations Kim Du-woo was quoted in local papers as saying that there were no political considerations when determining the publishing date.

He said, "The memoir is about policy rather than politics. There was no reason to delay or speed up the release."

The political ramifications of the specific timing of a presidential memoir have stirred debates in the past, not only in Korea but also abroad. For example, former American president George W. Bush released his memoir "Decision Points" in November 2010, just after the midterm elections.

At that time, there were many who saw the release of his memoir as a way to justify his administration's policy decisions, using the public's support of the Republicans in the midterms as a foothold for vindication.

Even without criticising his successor outright, former President Bush was able to use the momentum from the midterm elections to guide a reevaluation of his unfavorable legacy, according to the UK's Telegraph newspaper. When Bush left the Oval Office, his approval ratings had plunged to a low of 25 per cent.

The current circumstances facing Lee as he releases his memoir seems to correlate on the surface to those that Bush faced in 2010.

According to Gallup Korea, Lee had a 23 per cent approval rating in the last quarter of his final year in office. Now, with much of the public's anger with this policies shifted onto his successor, he stands to gain from a softer reevaluation of his administration.

Unlike Bush and President Barack Obama, Lee and current President Park Geun-hye belong to the same party, yet they have a contentious factional rivalry that complicates their political relationship.

Park will certainly be called upon to clarify all the major issues that she has inherited from the previous administration. With time, the political effects of Lee's memoir will become clearer, whether they are intended consequences or externalities.

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