[NOTEBOOK]Steer the economic ship of stateThere is a lot of talk these days about the bad economy. The dinner I had a while ago with persons working in the finance field was no exception. The topic naturally led to Lee Hun-jai, deputy prime minister and minister of finance and economy.
“I wonder what he is doing nowadays. I hear a lot about the transfer of the capital and other issues, but nobody seems to hear the deputy prime minister’s comments.”
“I say, I thought he received supreme power over economic policies when he was appointed to the post in February, but it doesn’t seem quite that way now. All the important economic policies are decided by some committees, and it seems that the ministers and the ruling party have different opinions.”
“It is a wonder whether things will come under control this way. Frankly speaking, the deputy prime minister doesn’t really have a sharp policy method other than taxes.”
Actually, there have been a lot of ups and downs with the position of the deputy prime minister of finance and economy. There were times when the deputy prime minister had almost absolute power over economic policies, but there were also times when the senior presidential secretary for economic affairs was much more powerful than the deputy prime minister, as was the case with Kim Jae-ik under former President Chun Doo Hwan; Moon Hi-gab under Roh Tae-woo; and Lee Suk-chae under Kim Young-sam.
In fact, former President Kim Dae-jung got rid of the deputy prime minister of finance and economy at the beginning of his administration. However, the position of deputy prime minister of finance and economy has overall had an important role in finalizing the formal economic policies of the government.
In times of economic trouble our country came together, with the deputy prime minister of finance and economy as the center, and worked things out. Of course this was possible because the president put trust in the deputy prime minister under him.
Business enterprises were sometimes intimidated by the deputy prime minister, and at other times uncomfortable, but the deputy prime minister was always someone they could lean on as a last resort in times of trouble. If the deputy prime minister said it was okay, it was okay. If he said it was not, it was not.
The incumbent deputy prime minister does not have less leadership or drive than his predecessors. When he was the chairman of the Financial Supervisory Commission in 1998, right after the foreign exchange crisis, he effectively got rid of insolvent finance companies with great endurance, risking severe criticism from various sources.
His spirit from the past was still there in February, when he came back to the government. He said, “Growth is more urgent than division. The market is not a children’s playground,” and seemed to put an end to the debate over what the economic policies should be centered on. People all around said things like, “It sure is different having an expert around.”
However, his strong spirit seems to be dying out with time. In the middle of May, days before the Constitutional Court announced its decision on the presidential impeachment motion, he called an unscheduled press conference and said, “We have tried a lot of things but the ship is not moving, so in the end it will all be left to the captain, who is me.” This statement showed his stress as the control tower of the economy.
Things have not become any better since then. Heavyweight policies that will have a huge effect on the economy have been announced, like the plan to transfer the capital, or transfer public institutes to other provinces. Yet the voice of the deputy prime minister has not been heard.
Recently he answered a question concerning the transfer of the capital by saying, “Expenses will start going into the project in 2007, so it will not have an effect on our economy immediately.” In his answer, we cannot find that he still plays the role of the leader of the economy. He has given no comment on whether or not the transfer will actually be possible with 45 trillion won ($39 billion), or whether it is the right decision to transfer the capital spending such a huge amount of money.
Now, even though the deputy prime minister might say, “Our economy will recover at the end of the second quarter, or the third quarter,” it is hard to expect that the economy will get any better. It seems like the ship will remain stationary, unless the captain determines resolutely that he will unfold policies of his own belief and step down from the position if things do not work out.
* The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jong-soo