[Viewpoint]Share the loadNo one imagined such an absurd situation could have become a reality. Back then, had someone suggested that all of the cabinet ministers and senior Blue House secretaries would hand in their resignations after just a little over 100 days had passed since the inauguration of the administration, we likely would not have believed them.
It was when the appointment of key government posts was about to be announced, just before the Lee Myung-bak administration was launched, that I pointed out (in a Feb. 20 JoongAng Ilbo column) the structural vulnerability of the new government.
I warned that if the president, a self-professed expert on the economy, tried to address all economic policies, it would be highly likely that the government would become dogmatic and as a result, the president would have to carry all of the administration’s responsibilities. I emphasized that the risk would increase because the president abolished the post of finance minister and appointed himself as the head of the economic team.
I expressed concern that, in a system where it is difficult for anybody to say “no” to the president after a decision is made, a small mistake could bring down the credibility of the entire government.
That gloomy forecast has turned out to be a reality. The government crisis, which was caused by a long series of rallies to protest the U.S. beef import deal, resulted from the decision-making structure with the president at the center.
The beef deal is a typical example. In the past, the finance minister carried out detailed preparations for such important international negotiations, coordinating among concerned ministries.
However, the current administration has no one who can play such a role. The minister for food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries was the only one around to handle the beef deal. As the candlelight vigils spread and public fury against the deal escalated, the government failed to show any sign that it would take responsibility and cope with the situation.
The agriculture and food minister became the target of public anger first, and then the candlelight protesters started to demand the cabinet step down too, eventually taking aim at the president.
Since Lee could not step down, there was no choice but for cabinet ministers and senior secretaries at the Blue House to resign en masse.
The same applies to other economic policies. The government under President Lee has no control tower for its economic team that can advise the president on policy directions and mediate policy guidelines among different ministries. Since all ministers only listened to the president and were busy carrying out his orders, there was only confusion.
Although the international economy looks to be heading into a recession and international oil prices are rising rapidly, the administration has clung to its targets of economic growth.
As a result, it has often missed out on important policy changes that needed to be made, heading off in the wrong direction.
It has stuck to its policy of raising the foreign exchange rate while lowering interest rates, at a time when price stabilization was needed desperately. It has also attracted public criticism for controlling prices as if this were the 1970s.
Instead of persuading the president, who was in a hurry to make visible accomplishments in the beginning of his term, the cabinet ministers and the presidential secretaries busily ran around in any direction the president’s finger pointed.
Now, with the en masse resignation of the cabinet, it appears that a cabinet reshuffle will take place that basically means the formation of a new one. It seems inevitable that the whole economic team has to be changed, too. If that is the case, it is a must that not only the people in charge, but also the decision-making structure for economic policies should be changed.
I urge the government to bring back the post of finance minister, and let that person lead the economic team.
The president should only decide the overall direction and leave the details of government policy to the finance minister. If the policy fails, it will be only the finance minister who has to take responsibility.
There is not much hope that the economy will improve for the time being. Indeed, there are mountains of difficulties in the way.
With truck drivers and construction labor unions going on strike due to the sudden rise of oil prices, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is going to stage a summer strike.
Economic growth will slow down and prices will rise further.
Lives of the people at a grass roots level will become harder and various interest groups will put forward demands more frequently.
The road ahead will be bumpy for the new economic team. Therefore, the role of the leader of the new team is extremely important.
The post is not one of a hero who poses in glory in front of the audience, but one of a villain who takes the flack of bad publicity instead of the president.
The new finance minister has to become a cool-headed swordsman who can cut through difficult economic situations and demand perseverance and sacrifice, not a preacher of hope who promises a rosy future.
It is time for President Lee to get rid of the illusion that he knows everything there is to know about the economy, and resolve to transfer all economic policy responsibilities to truly talented people.
President Lee came into office by pledging an economic revival. He now faces an economy that really needs to be revived.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jong-soo