[GLOBAL EYE]We need leaders, not gamblersPresident Roh Moo-hyun had said that he envied German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for making political bets by dissolving their parliaments and calling for early elections. He reportedly said, “What does it mean to be the president of the Republic of Korea? The president cannot stake his party, and there is no systematic ground to risk the position of president. And even if the president irresponsibly tenders his resignation, nothing is resolved.”
His comment can be considered to be a reflection of his strong will to take political responsibility, but people might also see it as an extreme form of irresponsibility, ready to play his trump card and stake his position. It does not make sense that the president, who has made the decentralization of power and an anti-authoritarian style into his golden rules, envies Mr. Schroeder or Mr. Koizumi, who have parliamentary cabinet systems, complaining that he cannot do much due to his low approval rating at a time when his term is over half finished.
By the judgment of the citizens, Mr. Koizumi has been victorious, while defeat seems certain for Mr. Schroeder in the election scheduled for Sept. 18. While the two foreign leaders will meet different fates, they have both asked for the confidence of their citizens in their efforts to pursue reform, and the citizens of both countries share a lot in common in their likely choices.
Mr. Koizumi is victorious in many ways. He won a landslide victory, going beyond the win of the ruling coalition, and secured a single majority for the Liberal Democratic Party. Moreover, he reversed the conventional image of the party and established the perception that the Liberal Democratic Party is reformist. The privatization of the post office is a symbol of Mr. Koizumi’s reform, and its influence on the Japanese system is special. In the course of the country’s rapid government-led development after World War II, bureaucratic organizations have become overgrown, and restrictive regulations against private sector have prevented freedom of choice and competition. In an age of economic globalization and technological innovation, Mr. Koizumi’s reform focuses on eliminating such obstacles, and would start by severing Japan Post, the world’s largest savings bank with $3 trillion in assets, from its bureaucratic management. In the future, the virtues of small government and economic efficiency will gather momentum, and the inclination to the right and nationalistic trends stemming from the landslide victory of the Liberal Democratic Party are likely to pose considerable probelem for Korea.
The decision of German citizens on Mr. Schroeder’s reform feels more realistic to Koreans. The election is more of a national referendum on whether to continue with the reforms or to pursue growth. Mr. Schroeder’s reform policy is to reinforce the competitiveness of Germany within the framework of social democracy. However, under the country’s rigid employment structure and welfare system, the economic slump was prolonged and unemployment has increased rapidly. Without a dramatic breakthrough for growth and job creation, the “German disease” will be nearly incurable. Reducing welfare benefits resulted in opposition from leftists and the 11-percent unemployment rate turned the public against the chancellor, Mr. Schroeder’s approval rating has plummeted, and a series of local election defeats has driven him into a corner. If opposition candidate Angela Merkel, who is called Germany’s Thatcher, is elected, the German economy is expected to be boosted by pro-business policies and the creation of jobs through growth.
While the second and third largest economies in the world are taking chances to boost their economies, the Republic of Korea is too relaxed. The president is obstinately clinging to the political card of overcoming regional confrontation, which has failed to win the support of citizens. The regional antagonism is gradually easing, and therefore, the majority of the public thinks that politicians should not give attention to it for political purposes.
The fundamental problems of the Korean economy are that its growth potential is weakening, the enthusiasm of investors and entrepreneurs is decreasing, and growth engines are cooling. While the government says that Korea must become the hub of Northeast Asia to survive, the country’s foreign direct investment is 107th among 140 nations, compared to Hong Kong’s second place and Singapore’s sixth place. The slogan “an investor-friendly nation” seems meaningless, the result of division and friction caused by prioritizing the treatment of the illness of jealousy rather than healing the economic slump.
Staking one’s authority, asking for citizens’ confidence, and agreeing to step down if the citizens say so, is not responsible politics. The president of the Republic of Korea is not the “trouble of the nation” and someone who makes the country quiet during his absence. Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Schroeder’s moves seem dramatic and cool. However, we are more envious of the citizens’ choice to enhance the system of free competition and spur economic efficiency in the era of globalization.
* The writer is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Byun Sang-keun