[Viewpoint] Waiting for a minister who lasts

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[Viewpoint] Waiting for a minister who lasts

The finance ministers of the G-20 countries assembled in a meeting room on the third floor of COEX on Nov. 12. Yoon Jeung-hyun, Korea’s minister of strategy and finance, stood up. It was the last luncheon he was hosting as chair of the G-20 finance ministers and central bank governors. “I am looking forward to the great French cuisine that my dear friend and French Minister for Economy, Industry and Employment Christine Lagarde will serve next year,” Yoon said.

And he gave a short speech to those gathered. “We will never forget how we got together, shared pains, stood up against the crisis and moved toward the future for the last two years. ... I will remember the warm hearts and cooperation you have offered forever. Your sincerity is deeply carved in my heart. Please take with you the sentiments and promises of the Koreans to your home countries,” he said.

After the two-minute-15-second-long speech, Yoon’s eyes were moistened. The ministers in attendance were moved as well. The memories of arguments and agreements in the last two years must have come to mind. If the G-20 is a war of global economies, Yoon is the field commander of the Korean forces. Officials and diplomats say that the Seoul summit might not have gone so smoothly if it weren’t for the finance veteran’s wisdom, experience and devotion.

However, the party is over. And a cabinet reshuffle is being discussed as if the time has come. The main target is the finance team, including Yoon. Newspapers and other media are offering various opinions on the reshuffle. The discussion itself makes you think the reshuffle is necessary. According to government insiders, there are three main reasons for the reshuffle.

First, a routine cabinet reshuffle is customary. Because the administration had already planned to change the ministers and officials, they have to be replaced. The point is that the finance officials were supposed to be replaced in the last cabinet reshuffle in August, but the decision was postponed because of the G-20 Summit, and the time has now come.

Second, Yoon and Chin Dong-soo, chairman of the Financial Supervisory Commission, made no contribution to the election victory of President Lee Myung-bak and the establishment of the administration. They do not have the so-called “holdings” to power. Yoon and Chin even served as a minister and deputy minister, respectively, in President Roh Moo-hyun’s administration. So giving major posts to nonshareholders would be against the “rules of sharing.”

Third, there are still many Lee Myung-bak allies waiting for a promotion. Before the 2007 presidential election, there was a joke in Yeouido: “The line behind Lee Myung-bak is so long that if you join the line, you will fall into the sea off Incheon.” The number of government posts is limited, and there are many people demanding rewards. So there is only one solution: raise the turnover rate. In past administrations, ministers were mass produced because many were replaced in a few months toward the end of the presidential term.

The reasons for the cabinet reshuffle are unconvincing, and there are voices opposed to replacing key finance officials. Their arguments also have three main points.

First, a finance minister is usually replaced to change policy direction or when the economy is unstable. So a finance minister’s longevity is a symbol of solid politics and economy. For 221 years, the United States had 73 finance ministers, with their service averaging three years and nine months. Except for a few short-lived ministers, most of them served through the administration’s term. In contrast, Japan has had 20 prime ministers and 31 finance ministers since 1989. On average, a replacement has been made every half year.

Second, there is no candidate suitable for the job of finance minister, and the confirmation hearing is also a challenge. The process may end up bringing only confusion to the government while failing to get any substantial gain from the replacement.

Third, we still need the experience, wisdom and connection of the incumbent economic team for a while.

The economic measures that were postponed to the end of the G-20 are waiting to be concluded. The taxation on bond interest earnings, restriction on forward exchange transactions and reinforcement of the regulation on foreign exchange transactions are pending issues that require meticulous policy execution. These moves could be deemed protective of the domestic market and could garner complaints from our neighbors.

We may have to endure criticism over the importance of pursuing national interests with the Seoul summit now over, after advocating free trade and a free exchange rate. In order to avoid such offenses, we need a smooth operation, and only a master familiar with domestic and international circumstances and who is armed with an extensive network is up for the job.

*The writer is the business editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Yi Jung-jae
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