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Lee Hae-chan’s challenge

July 25,2018
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Lee Hae-chan, a seven-term lawmaker and stalwart of Korea’s liberal establishment, announces his bid for chairman of the ruling Democratic Party at the National Assembly on Friday. [BYUN SUN-GOO]
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Lee Hae-chan, a seven-term lawmaker who once said that conservatives should be completely destroyed and liberals should remain in power, has joined the race for leadership of the Democratic Party.

In his bid announcement, he said winning the legislative elections in 2020 was necessary and he felt infinite responsibility for helping the ruling party remain so. He felt bringing down the far right was his calling.

Lee doesn’t like to talk to people outside of his camp. He tends to view politics not as the art of integration but as a war between factions. Therefore, many view him as narrow-minded. When he takes center stage in politics, confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties will likely aggravate.

Relationships within the party won’t be smooth, either. Lee Hae-chan does not bend. If he becomes the ruling party’s leader, many believe that he won’t kowtow to the Blue House. President Moon Jae-in might even feel uncomfortable with Lee as party chairman.

But Lee helped create the Moon administration. In 2011, when Moon was new to politics, Lee took him under his wing and made him a presidential candidate in a year. Whenever Moon faced political challenges, Lee gladly sacrificed himself. During the legislative elections in 2016, the party’s emergency chairman, Kim Jong-in, did not give Lee a nomination, and Lee accepted without fighting back.

Lee is very competent. While many activist-turned-politicians are dominated by excessive ideology, he is the rare case of a politician with field knowledge, foresight of planning, executive ability, understanding of budgets and policy-making capabilities.

He is also good with numbers. Former President Kim Dae-jung highly regarded Lee’s abilities. In the National Assembly, he served in the special budget committee and led the party’s policy committee. When Kim became president, he appointed Lee as minister of education. President Roh Moo-hyun made him his prime minister. “Prime Minister Lee is competent in handling economic affairs,” Roh once said. “I can assure that the participatory administration’s growth engine will slow down.”

Lee Hae-chan’s light is intense, but his shadow is dark. If elected, Lee could either be the best choice or worst choice. Moon has made economic mistakes because of somewhat incompetent aides. His approval rating may fall to the 50 percent level. At this rate, the party’s prospects in 2020 are murky. If Lee can address the two policies that ruined the economy and destroyed industry, the people will welcome his leadership.

The first policy to scrap is the unverified and ineffective “income-led growth” drive. The second is the phaseout of nuclear energy, which has increased electricity costs, lowered the quality of power and increased emissions of greenhouse gas and fine dust.

On the surface, income-led growth and nuclear phaseout are convincing, but they are myths, just like environmentalists’ argument that salamanders disappeared because a tunnel was built through Mount Cheonseong. Who will take responsibility when industrial competitiveness falls and growth stops because of a myth implemented as policy? This agenda was forcibly pushed on us without scientific judgment. If a competent man like Lee Hae-chan can explain the facts and persuade President Moon of the need to discard these policies to save the economy, we can head back in the right direction.

If Lee is not prepared to make such policy decisions, his spirit has withered. During his bid announcement, he sniffed his nose and shook his hands a few times. He was not his prime self. Nevertheless, if he is going for a great challenge, he should have reasonable justifications and excellent persuasion. If he cannot convince the citizens, his challenge could be considered the ugly greed of an old man.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 23, Page 30