The South Korean president’s underwear: Lee Myung-bak channels Jimmy Carter

South Korea has a problem: Energy demand is outpacing energy supply, and the country could face debilitating electricity shortages this winter (a surge in consumption during an unseasonably hot September already caused widespread blackouts). But, fortunately, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who’s already constructed additional power plants and imposed new power-saving regulations, has an unorthodox, ...

Noel Celis and Arnold Sachs/AFP/Getty Images
Noel Celis and Arnold Sachs/AFP/Getty Images
Noel Celis and Arnold Sachs/AFP/Getty Images

South Korea has a problem: Energy demand is outpacing energy supply, and the country could face debilitating electricity shortages this winter (a surge in consumption during an unseasonably hot September already caused widespread blackouts). But, fortunately, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who's already constructed additional power plants and imposed new power-saving regulations, has an unorthodox, deeply personal solution. In a radio address on Monday, Lee informed South Koreans that he has taken to wearing thermal underwear after lowering the thermostat in his office.

"Naturally, I had to wear warmer underwear which was uncomfortable initially," Lee explained, according to the Yonhap News Agency. "But after a while, I got used to it, and now I am very warm and comfortable wearing it." Having resolved any outstanding confusion over the comfort of his underwear, Lee issued a challenge to South Koreans:

South Korea has a problem: Energy demand is outpacing energy supply, and the country could face debilitating electricity shortages this winter (a surge in consumption during an unseasonably hot September already caused widespread blackouts). But, fortunately, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who’s already constructed additional power plants and imposed new power-saving regulations, has an unorthodox, deeply personal solution. In a radio address on Monday, Lee informed South Koreans that he has taken to wearing thermal underwear after lowering the thermostat in his office.

"Naturally, I had to wear warmer underwear which was uncomfortable initially," Lee explained, according to the Yonhap News Agency. "But after a while, I got used to it, and now I am very warm and comfortable wearing it." Having resolved any outstanding confusion over the comfort of his underwear, Lee issued a challenge to South Koreans:

We can save energy beyond our expectations if we lower the temperature in houses and offices a little, turn off unnecessary lights during the night and use high-efficiency electric appliances. I urge businesses, civic organizations and the general public to participate in this campaign voluntarily.

Lee may be thinking outside the box, but he has an intellectual forebear. In 1977, a cardigan-clad Jimmy Carter informed Americans that if they would only keep their thermostats at "65 degrees in the daytime and 55 degrees at night," America "could save half the current shortage of natural gas." Carter, who would later install solar panels on the White House roof, was trying to develop a national energy policy in the wake of an exceptionally cold winter that had depleted supplies of oil and natural gas.

But the exercise in lead-by-example, micromanaged energy conservation fueled ridicule more than anything else. In 2009, for example, an op-ed in the Tulsa World claimed that "Carter’s sweater" was "haunting the discussion" of energy conservation, making it "permanently associated with malaise and discomfort." Here’s some footage from Carter’s 1977 speech (the part about thermostats comes right after the end of the clip):

Perhaps South Koreans will look back on Monday, November 28 as the day the country got serious about energy conservation. Or, of course, they may remember it as the day South Koreans started making fun of Lee Myung-bak’s long underwear.

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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