[OUTLOOK]Like it or not, Roh is ‘economist-in-chief’How great is the power of the president to lead a country’s economy? Syngman Rhee set the framework for our capitalist economy as the first president of our country. Presidents Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan were economy-oriented presidents. Even the administration of President Roh Tae-woo, who is sometimes called “the water president” for his willy-nilly character, fared well with the economy, and President Kim Young-sam achieved a great economic feat unwittingly in implementing the “real name system” of financial transactions. Kim Dae-jung dominated his economic ministers, memorizing even the most trifling statistics. Despite their different achievements, all controlled the economy. The presi-dent’s strong role in the economy is a common characteristic in developing countries.
What about President Roh Moo-hyun? President Roh declared he would become a “humble president” even in economics and abandoned the direct controls on the economy that his predecessors had used. He even got rid of the Blue House senior secretary for economic affairs so that the economic ministers would not have to be wary of the Blue House when deciding on policies.
President Roh is always careful not to be a tyrant and emphasizes public participation and democratic procedures. He likes to hold debates on every issue and gives a refreshing portrayal of a president who likes to share small talk and cigarettes with his aides and who even pours his own coffee in paper cups.
Yet, in essence, President Roh is not all that different from our former presidents. He has shown formidable resolution from the beginning of his term, appointing those of his “code” to important positions throughout the Blue House and the government and taking over the entire operation of the government in a storm. Things such as interfering in the appointment of bank presidents are too trifling for President Roh. He has set about to change the entire framework of economic policies, doing things the way he always wanted to do them and applying the opinions of his support base in government policies.
President Roh does not shy away in the face of resistance or opposition. On the contrary, he has set the media, his biggest critic, as his main target. The bureaucracy has lowered its tail. The president’s campaign promise of moving the capital city is now being accepted as inevitable and any voices of opposition are immediately considered reactionary. The mobilization of police force to encounter illegal rallies and activities by labor unions have now become a matter to be decided at the president’s discretion.
As if not satisfied with leaving things to his personally-appointed aides, the president has stepped forward to intervene in economic affairs himself. Most companies do not hesitate to name President Roh as the most “anti-corporate” president in history. Many grumbled that President Kim Dae-jung had been indifferent to the difficulties and hardships that Korean companies face, but President Kim was a saint compared to President Roh. Putting aside the matter of who is wrong or right, it is an inevitable consequence that business activities would decline under the Roh Moo-hyun administration.
President Roh’s aggressively pro-labor stance in the past had corporations running scared. Since his days as a human rights lawyer, Mr. Roh stood on the side of the labor unions and criticized the faults and shortcomings of big business and he made it obvious that his sympathies for laborers had not changed when he became president.
Officials in charge of the economy were very much taken back. Old slogans were dropped. Labor-management relations, nuclear power and even credit card delinquencies became not economic problems but social issues that needed to be approached from the perspective of national unity.
Looking back, no president has shown his true colors in office as early as President Roh. He did things the way he wanted to do them and he hired the people he wanted to hire. As he admitted, there were many trials and errors.
There are many who hope that things will change this new year. Everyone from businessmen to civil servants are looking to the president for answers. The people still believe that economy depends on what the president does. This may seem backward and embarrassing, but this is our reality, our level. The infrastructure of the economy still depends on what comes out of the president’s mouth. Some “reform” policies were begun so vigorously by the president that they will not be changeable unless the president steps in directly to stop them. Only the president can stop this vicious cycle.
If only he could take care of things that he has started, the economy would get much better this year. The president knows best what those things are. The key to this year’s economy is how much the president’s perception of the economy changes. We really depend on you, Mr. President.
* The writer is chief economic correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chang-kyu