Go to contents

Is He the Actual Power Minister?

Posted June. 09, 2005 06:31,   


On June 8, Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan has been in office for a full year (counting from the time he was appointed, when considering National Assembly’s approval it will be June 29) and he has wielded stronger power than any other prime minister in Korean history.

That is because after President Roh Moo-hyun adopted a decentralized administration last August, Prime Minister Lee took charge of general national affairs.

Nevertheless, the evaluation of Prime Minister Lee, also known as the “Actual Power Minister,” for his work over the past one year, has not been that good due to troubles in national administration and economic difficulties.

Problems of Decentralized Administration—

Under a political system centralized on the president, a decentralized administration system is an unprecedented experiment under the Korean constitution.

In fact, running a decentralized administration was not established by a system, but rather based on a personal trust between President Roh and Minister Lee. Hence, if the trust between the two falters, confusion might arise in national affairs.

There are positive points since the president and prime minister’s division of roles have resulted in an increase in the capabilities of the entire government, but there are also analyses that side effects are gradually emerging.

First of all, as seen in the Presidential Committee on Northeast Asian Cooperation Initiative’s support of the Haengdam Island development project and the controversy regarding the S Project (development of the southwestern coast), there is strong criticism on abuse of authority and the lack of a system in presidential committees.

Some also point out that Prime Minister Lee did not consult pending national affairs issues with his party and decided on issues unilaterally, breaking up the consultation channels between the government and the party. By the same token, that is why there are attacks on the prime minister from the Uri Party regarding the government’s measures on self-employed businesses and to shut down traditional markets.

Others point out that Minister Lee’s hostile attitude and remarks toward the opposition party worsened the relationship with Grand National Party (GNP) and set back the management of national affairs.

From these reasons, there are reports that the relationship between President Roh and Prime Minister Lee has been estranged a bit. However, the majority of politicians agree that President Roh has full confidence in Minister Lee, who does not hesitate and “takes the bullet” when dealing with the opposition party.

An official from the prime minister’s office also stressed, “Someone is spreading rumors of discord but that is absolutely not true. There is no change in the trust between President Roh and Prime Minister Lee.”

Risky Moments—

Prime Minister Lee made some inappropriate remarks as the prime minister and put the country into an uproar. He also earned nicknames such as “Rash Speech Prime Minister” and “Insolent Prime Minister.”

Last October, he had strong drinks with reporters in Berlin, Germany and made abusive remarks such as, “Dong-A and Chosun are traitors of history. Dong-A and Chosun are in the palms of my hand. Don’t fool with me,” and attacked the GNP, saying, “If the GNP rules, history will recede.”

At National Assembly’s the interpellation session on the government, he said, “I should not be responsible for speaking what I usually feel. Isn’t the GNP that received cash-by-the-truckload in the basement and the highway?” which resulted in the paralysis of the National Assembly for about two weeks.

At a Kwanhun Club Discussion with journalists in March he apologized for his “Dong-A and Chosun, don’t fool with me” remark in a roundabout way, saying, “It is my character to not hold back after being attacked. I still need more improvement. It was not intentional.” Nevertheless, afterwards, his comments often went over the line.

In particular, at a meeting with journalists on May 10 he did not restrain himself and said, “I don’t think there is anyone with presidential material among the current mayors and provincial governors,” and, “There is a problem with President Roh’s lower back.” In addition, he also exchanged verbal barbs with GNP lawmakers at the May 6 National Assembly hearing.

Actual Power Minister or Bullet-Proof Minister?—

The Prime Minister’s status has been so elevated that one can say, “All roads go through the Prime Minister’s Office,” and that would not be an exaggeration.

If no conclusion is reached at Cheong Wa Dae’s Pending Issue Review Meeting and they want the president’s decision, President Roh empowered Prime Minister Lee by sending them to consult and decide with Prime Minister Lee.

It is also reported that Lee played a role in appointing ministers and even vice-ministers even though he does not have appointing power over vice-ministers. He also receives the same NIS’ reports that go to Cheong Wa Dae.

It is Prime Minister Lee’s style not put pending issues on the backburner. An official of the prime minister’s office said, “In the past, ministers neglected and did not touch sensitive tasks or unfavorable issues, but Prime Minister Lee does not care about his personal popularity and makes decisions after timely, in-depth discussions.”

It is rumored that when two ministers dissented and had an argument, Prime Minister Lee solved it firmly, saying, “You two gentlemen take it outside and reach an agreement. Otherwise I will put it to a vote.”

With this, President Roh could free himself from all types of conflicting issues. Prime Minister Lee is also seen as faithfully playing the role of “bullet-proof minister” by taking the criticism every time the ruling party attacks President Roh as leftist.

At a recent meeting with the press, Lee said his impressions of being prime minister were “like running on a treadmill everyday. From morning to night. Because if I don’t run, I fall.”

Yong-GwanJung Kang-MyoungChang yongari@donga.com tesomiom@donga.com