Mythology in the making

by Philip Gowman on 12 May, 2008

in Book Reviews, Books on Politics and Current Affairs

CEO PresidentLee Myung Bak: Korea’s CEO President
Seoul Selection, 2008

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When their country has pulled itself up from the devastation of war in the space of fifty years, and a man has risen from poverty to the highest office in the same period, Koreans have every right to feel proud of themselves and their country. That said, Seoul Selection’s pamphlet profiling Korea’s new president is, for this reader at least, a bizarre publication. Part manifesto, part hagiography, the text is anonymous apart from some glowing clips from newspaper editorials. The only credit is given to Robert Koehler, who compiled the material.

The first part of this oddity is a brief biography, of more interest to historiographers than historians. Lee’s birth is accompanied by the conventional auspicious dream visiting his pregnant mother – in Lee’s case, his mother dreams that the moon had climbed up under her skirt. We then follow Lee through the grinding poverty of his early childhood, his 18-hour days at Hyundai, and his single-handed defeat of a gang of thugs hell-bent on looting the corporate safe. Lee’s rags-to-riches story of course personifies the success of South Korea since the 1960s. Every detail of the account may be entirely true, but the tale is told in a firmly Plutarchian style, with lots of homely details. All we are lacking is a comet appearing in the sky at Lee’s birth, a convenient she-wolf to act as wet nurse and a few vipers to give the young toddler some wrestling practice, and we would have a full-fledged classical hero.

If the brief biography somehow fails to connect with this particular reader, at least the brief account of Lee’s achievements as Seoul’s Mayor provides some interesting detail for those who know Lee as the creator of the Chonggyecheon: improvements to the transport system, and the creation of Seoul Forest and Seoul Plaza are recounted. But the account of his achievements is again told in a partisan style, emphasising how he persisted in his views against the scepticism of those around him. It’s as if the section was written by President Lee’s marketing department.

After a selection of newspaper editorials we come to a section setting out Lee’s goals for his presidency. I heard recently that a Korean journalist had counted as many as ninety-two pledges that Lee made during the election campaign. I couldn’t identify all of them in the description of Lee’s programme as laid out in this pamphlet, but it’s certainly a full agenda.

The booklet is available from Seoul Selection for $7 (though the price on the cover is $12). If it was published entirely at Seoul Selection’s own initiative, it’s an ill-judged decision. If I was an author who had already been published by Seoul Selection, I would feel decidedly miffed that I shared a stable with this particular effort. And if Seoul Selection was leaned on by Lee’s supporters to print it, let’s hope that by conceding this once they have earned so much political capital that they can now publish whatever they like in future without any interference.

So, as an account of why a Korean might be proud of their new president, this book meets the objectives. The problem is, who wants to read a marketing brochure?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Grace Kim May 17, 2008 at 7:24 pm

Hi Philip. All politicians publish propaganda before, during and after election. Is he trying to position himself as a populist, “man of the people?” Of course, the Britons/Irish tend to be Biographers/ Historians par excellence– and few other nations match the U.K.or Ireland in producing such excellent biographies about obscure British nobodies who but for their extraordinary biographies would be footnotes in history! The writing of such things takes time, so let us wait and see.

Philip Gowman May 18, 2008 at 10:08 am

My puzzlement about this brochure is that it was published not by LMB himself or by the GNP, but by a publishing company that I thought was trying to be taken seriously.

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