[OUTLOOK]Appoint him, leave him aloneTwo months before the assassination of President Park Chung Hee in 1979, the president called a former finance finister, Kim Yong-hwan, to come to the Blue House unofficially. “Look here. Nothing’s going right with the economy. Give me a report telling me what to do,” the president told the former minister.
At the time, the government had just shed its policy of a bias toward exports and was trying to be more even-handed, a policy led by the deputy minister for economics, Shin Hyun-hwak. Mr. Park, however, was not pleased with the new economic minister, who always seemed to find fault with the old ways and always tried to change things. This was exactly what the president had hired Mr. Shin to do, but when Mr. Shin really started to change policies, the president became irritated and nervous. Mr. Shin’s criticism of the former policies and call for reform was in essence a criticism and call for reform of what the president himself stood for. Using the expression popular these days, Shin Hyun-hwak and Park Chung Hee were not of the same “code.” That was why President Park had planned to fire Mr. Shin out and bring in Kim Yong-hwan again; they shared the same code. Had the president not been killed, Mr. Kim would have been reappointed to his former post.
What is the relationship between President Roh Moo-hyun and the new economic deputy prime minister, Lee Hun-jai? It seems that Mr. Lee’s position is similar in many ways to that of Mr. Shin, the deputy prime minister 25 years ago. Mr. Lee might have to brace himself for difficulties similar to those Mr. Shin experienced. From what is known of Mr. Lee’s views on the economy and its current condition, there will probably be many times when the minister disagrees with the president, and this will not be easy for either of them. The president appointed Mr. Lee because he thought he was the most appropriate person for the job, but when the new minister starts to scold and criticize him, he might try to replace Mr. Lee. Shin Hyun-hwak was almost replaced in less than a year, but was able to press on with his reforms when the president was assassinated. Had Park Chung Hee survived, Mr. Shin’s retrenchment policy and his laying of the foundation for price stabilization in the future would have been impossible.
Much public attention is focused on how well President Roh and Mr. Lee will get along with each other. Mr. Lee is very different from his predecessor, Kim Jin-pyo. He is a heavyweight with a more powerful reputation. Mr. Lee made his opinions clear from the first day of his appointment. He asserted in a speech that growth was more urgent than income redistribution and scoffed at the director of the National Tax Service, who had made a public issue out of firms spending more than 500,000 won ($430) in entertainment expenses. He even threw a near-threatening remark to arrogant foreign investors, telling them that this market was not a children’s playground. He was saying that anybody who did not cooperate with government policies would not be left in peace. It is not known what kind of deal was made between the president and the minister, but Mr. Lee has also hinted that he would do things his way and would resign if anything displeased him.
It must not have been an easy decision for President Roh to choose Lee Hun-jai. Mr. Lee had once scorned the administration as a “pro-labor government where amateurs scurry around.” Little must the president have imagined that he would find himself in this current situation when he appointed his economic ministers a year ago. A year ago, the president had probably been determined to show the world what he could do by appointing new faces with innovative minds. Today, he finds himself forced to discharge the majority of his aides and replace them with the old-time veterans he had shunned at the beginning of his term.
A charismatic figure with strong leadership is called for when the economy is in such an uncertain state. The president has already failed in his attempt to become that hero.
The former president Chun Doo Hwan once told his senior secretary of economic affairs, Kim Jae-ik, “You are the president when it comes to the economy.” President Roh should offer the same kind of support to Mr. Lee. The president should repeatedly emphasize his transfer of power to the economic minister and express his trust in Mr. Lee in his ministerial meetings. If the economic minister and another minister fall into a dispute or an argument, the president should immediately take the side of the economic minister. That is how the incumbent in that job can command enough authority to do his job.
The president should reduce the length of the debates held in the Blue House and turn over the majority of all meetings to the economic minister. Instead of attending endless debates and roundtables in which he only ends up encouraging more arguments, the president should only ask the economic minister to give him the results of meetings. If the president starts to express his own opinions on economic issues such as the corporate tax and mobilization of public force in cracking down on illegal strikes, then all his efforts so far would go to waste again. If such a thing does happen, I advise Mr. Lee to turn in his resignation instead of suffering needlessly. May the president and the minister be on good terms.
* The writer is chief economic correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chang-kyu