Ask Koreans Why CEOs Make Lousy Presidents

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By William Pesek

Americans smarting over Mitt Romney's election loss may find comfort in South Korea's economic plight.

In 2007, Koreans elected businessman Lee Myung Bak president. It seemed like a good idea, with Korea sandwiched uncomfortably between high-tech Japan and low-tech China. Who better to raise Korea's game than the former bigwig at Hyundai Group, one of the family-owned conglomerates that helped the economy rise so impressively from the ashes of the Korean War?

Today, the feeling is one of buyer's remorse. Korea navigated around the 2008 global crisis, but the biggest winners were the handful of corporate giants, or chaebol, towering over Asia's fourth-biggest economy. In the years after Asia's own economic meltdown in 1997, the emphasis was on reducing the chaebol's role. Instead, they amassed even greater wealth and influence. Many Koreans sense that President Lee has taken care of his own while in power.

Or it could just be that businessmen make awful politicians. Take Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's prime minister from 2001 to 2006, who ran the nation the same way he did his telecommunications empire. Billionaire Silvio Berlusconi did the same in Italy. George W. Bush, the first U.S. president with an MBA, touted his lineup of Fortune 500 executives including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. We all know how that turned out.

Lee joins a growing list of self-proclaimed chief-executive-style leaders tripping over their briefcases and ambitions. Aside from looking out for their corporate ilk, a common mistake is making decisions without ample consultation with the public and opposition lawmakers. Running a company and a democratic nation are infinitely different things. That may explain, at least in part, why presidential hopeful Romney's resume didn't resonate with voters.

Park Geun Hye, Korea's president-elect, will have to do better.

The good news is that Korea's first female leader has spoken out about tightening regulations on the chaebol and empowering small to midsize businesses. The bad news: Park hails from Lee's conservative party and would have to refute many of its business-friendly ways, which is easier said than done. Well, at least she's not an MBA.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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-0- Dec/20/2012 18:27 GMT