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[FORUM]Pity the Blue House economic aide

June 06,2003
The former senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, Lee Ki-ho, was kept in custody last weekend, charged with “influencing the loan process” with regard to the cash transfer to North Korea. He is the fourth in the past decade to hold the position of senior presidential secretary for economic affairs and then be arrested in the next administration.
Meanwhile, President Roh Moo-hyun said in a press conference early this week, near the 100th day of his administration, that he would leave specific, professional matters to economic experts but would himself take charge of matters related to economic philosophy or “unsettled policies,” because despite ministers’ repeated explanations people consider the experts unreliable.
These two snippets show how difficult the job of senior presidential secretary for economic affairs is. Under past governments, senior presidential secretaries for economic affairs had less status than other presidential aides and often became losers in the power games inside the Blue House.
This was, first of all, because they were not actual power-holders or the closest people to the president. Neither had they shared their joys and sorrows with the president. They were mostly outsiders recommended for the position at the last moment, or promoted bureaucrats. As a consequence, they did not immediately enjoy the president’s trust and they had to pay close attention to the opinions of actual power holders. In extreme cases, they could not even get any information on top secret economic policies, much less participate in the decision-making process.
A famous episode from the beginning of the Kim Young-sam administration is worth recalling. While other top officials were busy preparing for the adoption of a rule ordered by the president that would require the use of real names in financial transactions, only the senior presidential secretary for economic affairs had not the slightest idea of the new policy until it was about to be implemented.
Second, it is difficult for the economic senior secretary to win the president’s favor because most economic matters are, in themselves, cold, boring and troublesome ― and many of the prescriptions are bitter political medicine to the president. With these disadvantages, senior secretaries for economic affairs often end up taking care of controversial projects that other senior secretaries promote after they get approval through a tete-a-tete with the president. Although the new government claims to have established a decentralized system, the Blue House still interferes with almost every matter, so that there is no distinction from the previous governments. The status or authority of Mr. Roh’s head of policy planning, economic adviser and senior secretary for policy seems to be little different from that of the past aides.
This can be demonstrated in the case of the privatization of Chohung Bank. It was reported that the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, Moon Jae-in, proposed to have a labor-government discussion regarding Chohung Bank at the Blue House. But there was resistance from those who thought this excessive intervention, and finally the director-general of policy planning, Lee Jung-woo, came to preside over the meeting instead of Mr. Moon.
After the meeting, Mr. Lee made his position clear that the Ministry of Finance and Economy and the Korea Deposit Insurance Corporation would take over the matter of selling Chohung Bank, and the Blue House would not directly intervene. This was where aides for economic affairs were restored to their original authority.
The most important issue now is the economy. President Roh should listen to his advisers on economic affairs more than to other aides. I would like to suggest that the president first listen to the opinions of aides for economic affairs even about issues beyond economic affairs, and then listen to the aides in charge of the other issues. This will boost confidence in the economic advisers and enhance their status, because they still have a weak grounding. In addition, because they are trained to suggest policy options based on reason rather than emotion, this way of listening to them first will also have the effect of preventing policies from resulting in disasters.
This method may disappoint some who supported Mr. Roh in the election, and it may be disadvantageous in the legislative election next year, but it will not only help increase the long-term competitiveness of our economy but also bring political stability.
As for the cash-for-summit scandal, if the former President Kim Dae-jung had listened to the frank opinion of his senior presidential secretary for economic affairs before asking other senior secretaries for their opinions, he might have prevented such a disgrace and fuss as he has now.

* The writer is the director of the JoongAng Ilbo Economic Research Institute.


by Ro Sung-tae


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