Thursday, February 21, 2013

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 government 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.

(Note:  Several commenters pointed out that Yoon Bo-seon, not Chang Myon, was the president after Syngman Rhee. That comment is technically correct, but it is not a fair comparison. Korea's short-lived Second Republic was a proportional representation system, in which the people elected the Prime Minister, the head of government. The National Assembly elected the president, the nominal head of state without much real power. Yoon Bo-seon was the president; Chang Myon was the prime minister. Therefore, apples-to-apples comparison should involve Chang Myon, not Yoon Bo-seon.)

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)

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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.

*                *                *

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


  1. Some of them may have been rather nasty men, but they are just babies compared to the Late President of the DPRK.

    If you put him on this list he would be in a league of his own.

  2. That was interesting and taught me a lot about the Presidents of South Korea. Thank you!

  3. I disagree with your assessment with Park Jeong Hee as Korea's second greatest president. He was a dictator who came into power through a coup d'etat. His legacy as leading the country into a great economic power is questionable. And he also was about to order martial law in Busan/Masan for their protests.

    As for YS, I think he is as less at fault for the IMF as he was dumped with the results of the bad decisions of the past government. And DJ didn't release Cheon and Roh. He just orchestrated it through YS. Smart of him for making YS share the responsibility, but not a positive thing.

  4. I actually once thought about asking you how you'd rank the presidents. It seems you read my mind. It's interesting to see your thoughts here.

    From what I gather, there's no real consensus among Koreans who the greatest president was, but the two you have listed as "greats" are usually the only ones who get considered.

  5. I think you mean the "successors" had tanks to roll in, not the "predecessors"!

    It's interesting how President Park is bookended by the two short-term leaders. Kind of like electing popes, they say the trend is a younger pope (longer term) followed by an older pope (shorter term).

  6. Great insights as always, TK!

    I like playing that what-if game with history, even though I also have a revulsion to dictators, that putting PCH a few centuries back, he'd be considered a well accomplished king. It's funny that we revere Sejong, who was no less a dictator, politically, than any of the 20th century ones.

    1. Well, as far as we know, Sejong did not assassinate his enemies...

    2. Like a certain 20th century dictator, Sejong tried to impose on the Korean populous his own (foreign) script that was a lot simpler than another one used around that time :p.

    3. kuiwon, you might be the only Korean in the world who is so conservative as to long for the days before Sejong imposed hangul upon Koreans!

    4. I was joking about that comment. King Sejong was quite unsuccessful at popularizing Hangul: He never imposed it. I blame Park Chunghee mostly for the decline of Hanja use in Korean writing: he actually banned Hanja education from elementary school to high school for 2 years and then after public outcry took back the ban in middle school and high school education. The military regimes after him didn't help that much either. Kim Daejung (the choice of him as #1 I agree with) is probably the only Korean president who tried to turn this tide back, only to face opposition from his co-ideologists.

      From this perspective, I find it ironic that Korean liberal newspapers such as the Hankyoreh have a Hangul-exclusive policy, but at the same time conservative newspapers such as the Chosun Ilbo use it and editorial columns by Korean conservatives lamenting the decline point back to and blame the 70s without naming who the culprit was.

  7. Great article!

    I have some really minor and unimportant comments here - shouldn't it be 'successor' rather than 'predecessor' when talking about Chang Myon and Choi Gyu-ha ? And, shouldn't be 'defeated North Korea' or 'defeated the North Koreans' when talking about Syngman Rhee's positives?

    1. Thanks for the catches! The "successor"/"predecessor" was a total brainfart.

  8. The funny thing is, when I have adult conversation classes, I like asking this question -- "Who was the greatest Korean president" the answer I get most often is Park Chung-hee (especially from the older generation). The surprising thing to me is that I get Roh Moo-hyun AT LEAST as often as Kim Dae-jung (who gets my pick).

    The people who pick Roh are almost always in the age-window where Roh was probably the first president they voted for once reaching voting age, and the way they talk about him is funny, too -- because they talk about what he promised, and how he seemed to be the start of a new era of Korean politics, and sometimes about his tragic end, but very little about his actual presidency.

    He was kind of an inept president, and pretty much failed to deliver...anything... but dammit, he really MEANT something to a whole generation of Koreans.

    1. JFK did LOTS of things ie went to the moon, Marilyn Monroe, and desegregating southern schools.

  9. Great list, though I personally think you were a little too harsh on LMB and a little too easy on KYS.

    I think the one major factor in the controversy of calling PCH a great president is that people are afraid of establishing the precedence of allowing a political leader's economic achievements trump his/her massive failures in civil liberties/democracy/human rights/etc. Rather than trying to deny PCH's works on the Korean economy/industry, I think everyone's just afraid of the future generation thinking "Yeah, he killed some people and oppressed the others... but he got the economy going, so whatever."

    In the end, it's a difference in value debate (as many things end up being).

    1. KYS is always tough for me to rank, but I am coming around to the idea that it took genuine courage for KYS to destroy 하나회 and prosecute CDH and RTW. It seems easy now, but I think at the time, there was genuine fear that the military could roll in with tanks one more time. So it was a big step for KYS to take.

  10. Amazing article. (as almost always and hereby I'd like to thank for all of the posts on this blog :))

    There's just one tiny thing that I'd like to get cleared up, about the 2nd president (chronologically, not on the ranking list). Shouldn't it be 윤보선 instead of 장면?

    Przemek (wishing You, Dear TK, all the best and sending greeting from Poland)

  11. Hello! I recently just started a youtube Korean food channel, EasyKoreanFood, where you can learn how to make fast & easy Korean food! It would mean the world to me if you could check it out because I'm just starting out! Thanks!

  12. Great article TK, but I would like to hear some of your thoughts on PCH's legacy! I personally believe that, if anything, PCH may have held back S. Korea's economic growth. I look at the enormous growth of other Asian economies at that time (Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan) and say that PCH wasn't really all that special. The seeds of the 1997 IMF crisis can also be traced back to the all-too-cozy, shady ties between business and government created by PCH.

    You pile on all the human rights abuses and the legacy of dysfunctional politics/corruption that affect Koreans to this very day, and I'd say he's overrated.

    1. And Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, were also lead by dictators (or governments that were essentially dictators). If anything, if any of them were democratic for the last 50 years they probably would not be as economically developed.

  13. I would like to see Lee Min Ho as the next Korean president.

    Term: 2016 - eternity


    drop-dead gorgeous
    a model
    killer smile
    speaks Korean
    very popular around the world
    can bring peace to the entire peninsula
    better looking than any other president from any other country

    Have I mentioned handsome?



    Well, maybe he is TOO popular. But something's gotta give.

  14. A great post! I would only say, I'm not sure if it's entirely fair to blame "strained relations" with America on Roh Moo-hyun given his US counterpart at the time. And of course, it is deeply ironic for his supporters that he can be credited with initiating the US FTA.

    I don't think Syngman Rhee should be credited with either the establishment of the ROK, or defeating North Korea as these were American "achievements". He did, however, blow up the Han River bridge when it was crowded with refugees trying to escape the North's initial invasion, stranding much of the civilian population and army in the process.

    [Small grammar catch, "But it WOULD not be within his term."]

  15. This post was very interesting. I agree with your general order, save maybe KYS. Is it a coincidence that the only left-wing president (essentially) is at the top? Hmm. Anyways, on the issue of PGH, I really doubt that she's going to amount to anything more than LMB. As you mentioned at the end of your post, I doubt that she will actually change Korea into something that resembles a welfare system. And on the subject of a possible reunification... I think 5 years is a little too hopeful. Again, great post.

  16. At the risk of sounding daft--not as versed in Korean politics as you--how about doing something for women? If president Park managed to remove some of the barriers for working women in Korea, then I'd consider her one of the best.

  17. I would have to disagree with you with Park Chung-hee as #2. South Korea saw a massive economical growth during his presidency, but he really didn't do anything. His economical policies were disastrous, and his military coup d'etat should be a big negative for him. It was mostly the Americans who jumpstarted the South Korean economy. Here's a video you might find interesting:

    By the way, I like this blog. I just found it the other day, will visit back once in a while! (y)

  18. Excuse me, After Syngman Rhee resigned during April Revolution of 1960, it supposed to be Yoon Bo-seon as the next president after Rhee.

    1. YBS was the next president, but not the head of government. Chang Myeon, the Prime Minister, was the head of government. Since YBS was not popularly elected, he should not be compared to other presidents.

  19. I almost 100% agree with this list. It seems that you share many aspects of my own political views. However, as far as I can tell, correct me if I'm wrong, Park Chung-hee's presidency happened to coincide with the period in which Japan and the United States helped the South Korean economy. Park was in office from 1962 to 1971, and during the Third Republic of South Korea (63 - 72) South Korea received immense aid from Japan and the US. Meaning that the economic growth during Park's presidency was not done by him alone, but with significant amounts of help from other countries. Also, he commanded South Korea to fight in the Vietnam War, and the war crimes that Koreans committed in Vietnam are inevitably inexcusable.

    1. The United States have helped, and trying to help, lots countries with aid. However, in most cases it has failed, because of misappropriated funds. Park can be at least credited with not taking the bulk of the aid for personal projects like palaces, or shoes. Once help, or aid gets into a country, it's up to that country's leader what to do with the funds.

  20. Unfortunately you were too optimistic...


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