Prudent policy, please

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Prudent policy, please

President Lee Myung-bak, in a recent discussion with his cabinet, made a comment to the effect that there “cannot be a half-hearted compromise” on policies that have an effect on the country’s future. Assuming he was referring to the Sejong City capital relocation project, the comment suggests that Lee may not agree to moving the main government bodies to the new city as originally planned for fear of a backlash from the opposition and the people of the Chungcheong region, where the city is to be located. The comment also suggests he may seek to compromise by moving some offices if he believes that not doing so could undermine the country’s future.

In the past, Korean leaders and their administrations have too often been selfish and short-sighted in mapping out their policies, thinking primarily in terms of their five years in power or trying to use policy to position themselves for the next elections.

The best example would be presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun’s campaign promise in 2002 to relocate the country’s capital to Chungcheong. His overwhelming victory among Chungcheong voters helped him to win the presidency that year, but his plan was ultimately derailed by the Constitutional Court, which ruled against it. To appease the voters in Chungcheong, the Roh administration came up with a revised plan to move the administrative headquarters to the region. His administration and the ruling party hyped the plan as a way to ensure balanced regional development, and they had the silent consent of the then-opposition Grand National Party, which could not further jeopardize their standing in the region.

The grandiose Saemangeum reclamation project was pitched by presidential candidate Roh Tae-woo in 1987 for similar reason, namely to secure votes from the Jeolla provinces. The project, which was marred by environmental and economic disputes, was completed 18 years after the groundbreaking in 1991. For the next two decades, the project often drifted, eroding fiscal bottom lines. The Saemangeum fiasco offered an important lesson on how campaign promises and short-term policy making can become a burden, weighing the country down for many years.

Current and future administrations should take policy making seriously. The incumbent administration should work prudently, not only with the Sejong project, but also with infrastructure projects like the four major rivers reconstruction project as well as political, education and other reforms. Potential presidential candidates should remember to ask themselves if their planned campaign promises are feasible, in the near future as well as in years to come.
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