It was never going to be easy!
President Lee fought his election campaign in 2007 on the basis of change. Against a backdrop of falling investment in the country. With a history of being tough minded but successful, he won the election by the widest majority achieved in a democratic South Korean election. A win which sparked a glimmer of hope amongst people in Korea and in businesses outside Korea. It brought a full email box to me from Koreans working outside Korea who were writing "At last, positive change and we would like to come back".
Fast forward to today and we have a President whose ratings in Korea have dropped to a low level. A major project, The Grand Canal, was abandoned. A waterway project that was not only going to be for practical business use, but was potentially environmentally friendly for the most part, and would have created leisure opportunities and wet lands, although admittedly financing was an issue. And then to the import of beef, about which significant protests still abound - but is this really about beef-related health issues - or does it go wider than that?
It seems to me that this is more to do with internal issues, seeking an outlet for domestic woes like unemployment, especially amongst the young. A view clearly shared by others that I have spoken to within Korea, but who have not spoken about it publicly for fear, I guess, of being criticised. But if anything was set to derail the ambitions of President Lee in his quest to make Korea a more open and welcoming economy, then the usual media feeding frenzy on the "standard" pictures of Korean demonstrators does nothing to help.
So, what next?
From the perspective of foreign investors, existing or potential, nothing much has changed. Korea remains, to many, as being "anti-foreign" or at the very least "systemically unfriendly" to foreign investors. Views that have been confirmed by various polls of business leaders in such organisations as the UK's Institute of Directors, and by the complete omission of a mention of Korea in the International Herald Tribune in an article about foreign investors in the the region. Not once was Korea mentioned. But I prefer to think of Korea as being less anti-foreign and more pro-Korean. In others words Korean interests tend to be put, or considered above all others. And I see nothing inherently wrong with this attitude, but the reality is that if you want to be a major player on the world economic stage you cannot be perceived, in any way, as being unfriendly towards foreign business.
For Korea, to move slower than the other neighbouring economies or, worse yet, stand still means it is losing ground. Look at the region. A powerhouse economy like Japan, countries which are developing rapidly like China and India. Newly emerging economies like Taiwan, Vietnam and the "next Vietnam" - Cambodia. Established business hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore, which are constantly enhancing their offerings and, in addition to Shanghai the newly emerging Chinese cities like Tianjin, Dalian, Chengdu and Chongqing which all have serious aspirations as business hubs.
Let's be blunt, I am concerned that Korea runs the very real risk of being marginalised.
When I first became an Adviser to President Lee I made it very clear to all who listened that for Korea to take its place on the world stage, it had to want to be there. I was not there to tell them what to do, but to provide help if I could and if it was what they wanted. The message I am receiving now is one that is divided. For the President, I believe he knows very clearly what needs to be done for his country, and for the future. For the Korean people, they have a choice. They can either see foreign participation in the domestic economy as some sort of threat...and see only the downsides. Or they can realise that such foreign interest is actually a vote of confidence in the future of Korea, and in the many talents of Koreans. It should bring employment, and a wider marketplace for the economy.
I, for one, hope it happens.