Korean President Power Ranking

On February 20, President Lee Myeong-bak held his last cabinet meeting, effectively ending his tenure as the president of Korea. (The inauguration for the next president Park Geun-hye is on February 25.) With another president into the pages of Korean history, it seems like a good time to have . . . the presidential power ranking!

Technically, the Republic of Korea has had ten heads of state since its birth in 1948: (1) Syngmn Rhee (1948-1960); (2) Chang Myon (1960-1961); (3) Park Chung-hee (1961-1979); (4) Choi Gyu-ha (1979-1980); (5) Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1987); (6) Roh Tae-woo (1987-1992); (7) Kim Young-sam (1992-1997); (8) Kim Dae-jung (1997-2002); (9) Roh Moo-hyun (2002-2007) and; (10) Lee Myeong-bak (2007-2012). But one can see that Chang Myon and Choi Gyu-ha did not last very long, because they abdicated from their posts when their successors rolled into Seoul with tanks. 

Thus, a fair ranking would involve eight presidents. How would they stack up? Here is the Korean's ranking, in reverse order.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


8.  Chun Doo-hwan [전두환]


Term:  1980-1987

Positives:  Won the bid for 1988 Seoul Olympics; decent economic growth (amid worldwide bull market) without runaway inflation.

Negatives:  Came to power by rolling into Seoul with tanks and killing his fellow soldiers; mass murder at Gwangju; unprecedented oppression of civil liberties; inconceivably huge slush fund.

We start the reverse-order list with Chun Doo-hwan, the brown standard of the shit list. The word "president" is wasted on him. He was a military thug who came to power illegitimately by a coup d'etat. When the city of Gwangju revolted in protest of his usurpation of power, he sent paratroopers to massacre hundreds of Gwangju citizens. Dissidents were arrested and tortured; newspaper editors were dictated tomorrow's news at gunpoint. Chun amassed more than a billion dollars in his slush fund, a staggering sum for  Korea in the 1980s.

If you squint real hard, there are a couple of redeeming points during Chun's presidency. It was a remarkable feat for a developing country like Korea (at the time) to win the bid for the Olympics. The economy also grew in a reasonable way, although that is more thanks to Korea's economic technocrats whom Chun left undisturbed. But the blood of hundreds of people on his hand puts him squarely at the bottom of this list.

7.  Roh Tae-woo [노태우]

Term:  1987-1992

Positives:  Began transition to democracy; solid effort to improve relations with Russia and China.

Negatives:  Came to power on Chun's coattail; directly responsible for Gwangju massacre; pretty damn huge slush fund.

Roh's rise to power was somewhat of a fluke. After Chun's reign was over and democracy was instituted, the pro-democracy opposition was not able to field a single candidate. With Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung splitting the votes, the previous dictator's right-hand man became the president with only 36% of the votes.

As the president, Roh Tae-woo was not terrible. He undid the worst aspects of Chun's dictatorship such as the government's control of media. He sought to improve ties with Russia and China, and was generally successful. This maneuvering would permanently put South Korea at a position superior to that of North Korea in the international stage. 

But the simple truth is that, if Chun Doo-hwan did not roll in with tanks with his buddy in the tow, Roh Tae-woo would have been a nobody. The blood of Gwangju citizens stains Roh's hands as well, as he was the one directing the military to shoot at civilians. And although not quite as staggering as Chun's slush fund, Roh Tae-woo did well for himself in the corruption front, amassing $500 million in his slush fund.

6.  Syngman Rhee

Term:  1948-1960

Positives:  Established the Republic of Korea; defeated North Korean in Korean War; land reform.

Negatives:  Attempted to be the lifetime president by arbitrarily changing the constitution and rigging elections; paved the road to fascism; mass murder of civilians before and during Korean War.

Syngman Rhee was a Machiavellian politician both domestically and internationally, maniacally focused on power and prone to bold and unexpected actions--not unlike Kim Il-Sung, his counterpart in the north. 

Rhee is ranked higher than Chun and Roh because Rhee's achievements are more substantial. He extracted as much as he could from the United States, Korea's chief protector, by repeatedly engaging in political brinksmanship. He oversaw a bold land reform that put his fledgling country on a solid path, by providing most Koreans with a sense of ownership to their nation. During Korean War, Korea was literally facing an existential threat, and due credit must be given to Rhee's leadership for preserving the republic.

But Rhee's failures are equally substantial. Fundamentally, he was uninterested in democracy and maneuvered to turn himself into a king, until he ran out of options. The damages from the precedents he created--rigging elections, hiring thugs to break up the opposition meetings, arbitrarily changing the constitution--set back Korea's democracy before it even began.

More importantly, Rhee cannot escape the tag "mass murderer," as he oversaw a brutal crackdown of a leftist uprising in Jeju and Yeosu/Suncheon. There, Rhee ordered the civilians who assisted the leftists to be executed as well. Korean military would slaughter at least 20,000 civilians in the process of quelling the rebellion. This mass murder is slightly more forgivable (to the extent any mass murder is ever forgivable) than the Gwangju massacre, because South Korea was extremely unstable, and the threat of communist overthrow of South Korea was quite real. Jeju/Yeosu/Suncheon may be characterized as guerrilla warfare; Gwangju was a straight massacre. But be that as it may, it is difficult to put a kind judgment on any mass murder of civilians.


5.  Lee Myeong-bak

Term:  2007-2012

Positives:  General elevation of Korea's international stature; decently handled worldwide financial crisis.

Negatives:  Environmentally disastrous Four Rivers Project; civilian surveillance program; huge step back on media freedom; non-existent North Korea policy

The outgoing president comes in at fifth place, which more or less means that the only thing separating him from the previous three is that he is not a mass murderer. During Lee Myeong-bak's presidency, the democracy of Korea took a big step back. More than 200 journalists were fired or otherwise penalized for expressing opposing views. The National Intelligence Service--Korea's spy agency--ran a surveillance program on ordinary civilians who supported the liberal politicians. What is more, Lee made a foolishly naive proposal to North Korea that suggested de-nuclearization in exchange for aid, which was only repaid with attacks on South Korean naval ship and its northern island of Yeonpyeong-do. His major campaign promise, the Four Rivers Project, failed to deliver: it was revealed to be little more than a vehicle to siphon government contract money to construction companies, while causing an environmental disaster of Korea's major rivers.

Lee Myeong-bak was not all bad. He was a solid diplomat, and Korea rose to a new height internationally under his watch. When the worldwide financial system went to hell in 2008 following the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, Korea managed to maintain positive growth and low unemployment.

The Korean suspects that, in three years or so, Lee's presidency would regain at least a little bit cache based on the benefit of hindsight. But today, as he is counting down the last days of his presidency, he is where he is.

4.  Roh Moo-hyun [노무현]

Term:  2002-2007

Positives:  Prosecutor's Office reform; Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

Negatives:  Income polarization; nuclear North Korea; strained relationship with U.S.

The Korean previously wrote that Roh Moo-hyun could arguably be the third best president in Korean history. Upon further reflection, fourth place would be more appropriate.

With the benefit of the hindsight, Roh Moo-hyun's presidency was average. He had achievements, but none particularly huge or long-lasting. The same is true for his failures. (If you are ungenerous, you could fault Roh for nuclear North Korea; but from what we have seen so far, pretty much nothing would have stopped nuclear North Korea anyway.) The only meaningful failure on Roh's part is that his unpopularity--arising from his political ineptitude--crippled the electoral chances of Korea's progressives; the effect of this failure manifested itself once more in the previous election.

Because Roh belonged to the minority faction of the minority party, he had limited practical ability to implement any huge and ambitious program. For his legacy, that was probably for the better.

3.  Kim Young-sam [김영삼]

Term:  1992-1997

Positives:  Clean break with the military rule; consolidation of democracy; transparency of financial transactions.

Negatives:  The "three-party merger" deal with Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo; 1997 East Asian Financial Crisis.

With Kim Young-sam, we are now approaching a point where the positives are beginning to outweigh the negatives. Kim Young-sam came to power by making a deal with the devil. In 1990, he made a pact with Roh Tae-woo to merge his party into Roh's such that he would succeed as the majority party candidate after Roh's presidency. For a man who dedicated his life to democratization movement, this was a stunning turn of events.

Kim Young-sam somewhat redeemed himself after he became the president. His administration prosecuted Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, putting them in jail for treason. Kim Young-sam also destroyed the ties between politics and the military, putting Korean democracy out of the reach of the military coup d'etat once and for all. Kim also ordered all financial transactions to be made in real-name basis, instantly improving Korea's transparency and providing a real foundation to become the first world economy.

But it was not to be within his term. Kim Young-sam finished his term while witnessing Korea undergo the greatest economic disaster in its history--the East Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. The financial crisis fundamentally altered Korea's national character into a more neoliberal, ruthless kind that it is today.


2.  Park Chung-hee [박정희]

Term:  1961-1979

Positives:  Economic growth at a level unprecedented in human history; put South Korea at a position clearly superior than North Korea.

Negatives:  Nearly irreparable damage to Korean democracy; fascist thuggery; destruction of civil liberties; assassinations and attempted assassinations of opponents.

It is with gritted teeth that the Korean places Park Chung-hee in the tier of great Korean presidents, because the Korean simply cannot tolerate the rulers who so carelessly disregard democracy and freedom. But the truth is undeniable: under Park Chung-hee's leadership, Korea experienced the greatest economic growth in human history (that is only recently surpassed by China.) It is likewise undeniable that the economic growth made the lives of Korean people incomparably better than the lives of the previous generation.

Does that excuse Park's many abuses? The assassinations and tortures of his political opponents? Or the policemen in the streets with scissors, cutting the hair of any young man who had long hair in the name of public order? Or the creation of Korea's political culture (which lasts to this day) that prizes economic advancement over democracy and freedom? That is precisely the debate with which Koreans have been grappling for the last three decades, and there will be no single answer. 

1.  Kim Dae-jung [김대중]

Term:  1997-2002

Positives:  Peaceful transition of power; forgiveness and reconciliation; deliverance from the financial crisis; Sunshine Policy (maybe).

Negatives:  Sunshine Policy (maybe).

Here is the greatest president in Korean history: Kim Dae-jung, who was also the most prominent leader of Korea's democratization movement.

Upon winning the election after Kim Young-sam's term, Kim Dae-jung could have reverted Korean democracy into the bad old days. DJ (as he was known) could have arrested YS on trumped-up charges or harass Kim Young-sam's political followers with groundless investigations. (In fact, this is exactly what Lee Myeong-bak did to Roh Moo-hyun.) But Kim Dae-jung, a remarkably principled man of democracy, rose above the temptation. Not only did he leave Kim Young-sam alone, but he also pardoned Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, the military dictators that tried to kill him.

Kim Dae-jung's achievement as the president was also significant. He led Korea out of the East Asian Financial Crisis and put Korea on the path of very speedy recovery. (And thanks to the measures taken during the East Asian Financial Crisis, Korea mostly skirted the dangers from the 2008 global financial crisis.) Kim Dae-jung also had the foresight to make massive investment into high-speed Internet in Korea, which has paid incredible dividends by vaulting Korea into a world-leading technology innovator.

The sole arguable failure by Kim Dae-jung was Sunshine Policy, in which South Korea began the course of diplomacy and dialog with North Korea. Whether the Sunshine Policy saved North Korea from collapse or defused a likely war in Korean Peninsula is an ongoing debate. But assuming that the truth is somewhere in the middle, Kim Dae-jung's achievements simply put him head and shoulders above all other Korean presidents.

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Bonus Entry.  Where would Park Geun-hye likely place in the list, five years from today?

Park has a potential to be great, largely because of the historical contingencies that may occur in her term. There is a realistic chance that North Korea may suddenly collapse in the next five years, and Korea will be reunified. If Park Geun-hye handles the reunification process well, that would easily vault her into Tier 1, and a serious discussion will have to be made about whether she is the greatest president in the history of Korea.

Even if the reunification does not happen, Park Geun-hye could put herself at the top of Tier 2/bottom of Tier 1 if she keeps her campaign promises and puts Korea on the path of becoming modern welfare state. Economically, two Korean presidents changed Korea in a major way: Park Chung-hee turned Korea into a modern industrialized nation, and Kim Dae-jung turned Korea into a post-modern, IT-industry based nation. Both changes transformed Korea's complexion in a fundamental way. Park Geun-hye's campaign promises have the same level of potential.

However, early returns indicate that Park Geun-hye's promise to construct a welfare state was not much more than an enterprising campaign tactic to deprive her opponents' main talking point. If this trend continues, Park Geun-hye will not amount to much more than a reprise of Lee Myeong-bak.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.