Chung’s Road Not Taken
By Sah Dong-seok
Deputy Managing Editor
President Lee Myung-bak won applause by nominating former Seoul National University President Chung Un-chan as prime minister on Sept. 3. The appointment was a winning card for Lee as it coincided with his latest centrist-pragmatist direction, showed tolerance for those on the opposing side and served as a check for his intraparty rival Park Geun-hye.
Yet, it was puzzling why Chung decided to join forces with President Lee, whom he had often criticized over policies such as tax cuts and the now-defunct cross-country canal project.
During the two-day National Assembly hearing last week, Chung said he had accepted Lee's premiership proposal after sympathizing with his centrist-pragmatism and pro-working class policies and made clear that he has no ambition to become president.
But politics are always subject to change, and who knows what lies in store for the new prime minister? In fact, Lee Hae-chan and Han Myung-sook, who served as prime ministers under the late President Roh Moo-hyun, joined the presidential race in 2007 but suffered defeat due to the Roh administration's overall failure.
Chung, who was approved as prime minister at the National Assembly on Monday, casts reminders of former President Kim Young-sam, who joined the ruling coalition with his followers in 1990, saying he would enter a den of tigers.
The governing Grand National Party (GNP) provides the optimal environment for Prime Minister Chung in his possible pursuit of the presidency in 2012 ― but only if he makes up his mind. At present, former Chairwoman Park is enjoying absolute dominance within the GNP, with incumbent Chairman Chung Mong-joon, Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon-soo and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon trailing in the distance. But each of the three wrests with problems ― Chung is tied to chaebol, Kim is a less-recognized figure and Oh has vowed to run for mayor again. Lee Jae-oh, the de-facto head of the pro-Lee Myung-bak faction, is sometimes counted among the presidential contenders but he is usually said to be unfit for the presidency because of his background as a progressive activist.
Chung's presidential ambitions will rely heavily on whether the Lee administration succeeds or not. In particular, the four-river revamping project, which has been confronting tough opposition from civic groups and opposition parties, may come as a blessing in disguise for Prime Minister Chung should the project wrap up successfully in 2011 and 2012. Although the project was a brainchild of President Lee, Chung might reap eventual fruits from the project if his premiership lasts long.
Another less possible but still imaginable scenario is that Chung parts from President Lee after a head-on collision, leaving behind a deep impression in people's minds, following the model of Lee Hoi-chang, now head of the minor opposition Liberty Forward Party, who emerged as a national leader after clashing with then-President Kim Young-sam in the 1990s while serving as prime minister.
The main opposition Democratic Party's near collapse is also creating an advantageous climate for Chung, 63. His progressive inclination and affinity for the working class will put a dent in voters' interest in the opposition party's presidential contenders in 2012, as was the case in the 2007 presidential election, resulting in a lopsided victory on the part of the ruling party. In this case, the state of the economy will count for a lot.
The planned creation of a new administrative town in the Chungcheong provinces, which had cornered him during the Assembly hearing, could give him another chance. If Chung succeeds in persuading Chungcheong residents regarding the controversial project and laying the groundwork for Sejong City to become a self-sufficient town, he would shake off his current tag of traitor and become a hero for his hometown people. In this case, Chung, who comes from Gongju, where Sejong City is to be located, would secure an important regional base.
Amid ever-worsening economic polarization, a growing number of people in South Korea tend to be supportive of a leader who can bring tangible results to people. In this respect, Chung, a prominent economist, might be qualified to deal with the economy ― possibly the No. 1 issue in the 2012 election.
Despite the negative allegations that dogged him during the Assembly hearing, Chung might have to join the presidential bandwagon ― even if he doesn't want to ― should he show the capability of being up to economic woes, national integration, Sejong City and other national agendas.
Inside the GNP, there is still lingering anxiety over Park Geun-hye, the strongest presidential contender. The skillful use of this atmosphere in the ruling party might enable Chung to grab the party's presidential ticket and ultimately become president.
As in the poem ``The Road Not Taken'' by Robert Frost, Prime Minister Chung's life will make all the difference if he takes the one less traveled by guiding the country into a prosperous future by actively getting involved in state affairs in his capacity as prime minister.