[Viewpoint] Bahk’s bad guy roleBahk Jae-wan, the nominee as minister of strategy and finance, has taken a long career detour. The former labor minister and finance ministry official worked in academia and served as a senior secretary at the Blue House and has now returned to his bureaucratic home.
While many were surprised by the nomination, they shouldn’t have been, not if President Lee Myung-bak’s personnel appointment style is taken into account. It is, in fact, a very typical choice. It is a classic example of his “revolving door” appointment policy. Lee has a limited pool of the talent to draw upon and those who hold important posts are just switching their positions.
Some questioned the professional expertise of Bahk, saying that he has been away from the government for a while. But that is not necessarily a weakness. Since he has worked in the finance ministry, the Blue House and on the Board of Audit and Inspection, he is well informed about the operations of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance. Most of all, he has earned a doctoral degree in public policy from Harvard University. As he had already said, his shortcomings can be resolved with the help of his aides.
Bahk is probably the best candidate to head the economic policy of the Lee administration at the end of its term, since his ability was proven in serving in key posts whenever necessary and because Lee trusts him deeply. Lee probably judged that his close aide is better than a career economic public servant to guide his economic policy at the end of his term.
Now the key agendas are “shared growth” and “price stabilization” and Lee probably needs a person who understands his mind well. It would be hard to find someone other than Bahk to play such a role.
And yet, a dark shadow has been cast over Bahk’s future because of Lee’s trust and timing as the presidential terms heads toward its end. The economic president and his key aide may implement the policies without listening to others. The president’s words will decide the fate of government policies and the minister and other officials will just wait for the president’s instructions.
Under the circumstances, it’s hard for trusted aides to say “no” to the president. Actually, they will likely to try to please the president. Then, the lack of communication - the worst weakness of the Lee administration - will become more and more conspicuous and unnecessary conflicts may arise.
Some may think Bahk was appointed to head the economic control tower at a good time because Korea has overcome the global financial crisis smoothly and the growth rate appears to be recovering. They advise Bahk to not begin new projects and just manage the economy as it is now.
But the economic situation that Bahk will face is not that easy.
Managing the economy in a stable manner until the end of Lee’s term is not as easy a task as it seems. Growth is already slowing, while prices are skyrocketing. The public does not feel the effects of improved economic growth, while the inflation deepens. Against this backdrop, managing stability will be difficult. And the president’s achievement of economic recovery from the crisis can also be forgotten.
Shortly after his nomination was announced, Bahk said he will do his best to stabilize the economy and create jobs. It has been his belief that job creation is the best policy for the working class. But no progress has been seen in the efforts to modernize the service industry - the key task of job creation - due to the resistance of interest groups and differences in opinions among ministries.
Bahk will inevitably have to confront the tight regulations governing the service industry to push forward his agenda of creating more jobs. Although many advised him to not begin a new project, he must resolve this long pending issue.
Two important elections take place next year and Bahk will have to come up with a plan to fight populism. Welfare populism has become the liberal opposition’s favorite card and the ruling party is now following suit. Not only opposition politicians but some in the ruling party are now demanding the government withdraw the tax cut program for the rich and big companies. Bahk is a well-known advocate of tax cuts and it will be his first task to fight populism.
Not only politicians but the government too is not free from the pressure of populism.
The policy favoring the working class inevitably requires increased spending on welfare programs. Finding a balance will be a difficult task.
The finance minister of an administration that is nearing the end of its term is always a tough post to serve, not an honorable job.
Bahk’s predecessor Yoon Jeung-hyun, therefore, has said he wanted to unload the heavy burden from his shoulders by now.
For Bahk to succeed, he must play the role of bad guy. He has to say no to the politicians, interest groups and the president. He has to fight the attacks of populism.
That will be the only way that both Bahk and the Lee administration can survive.
*The writer is an editaorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jong-soo