[Viewpoint] It’s no time to be cowedOn the night of Nov. 28, Gwanghwamun Plaza was a sight to see. In an attempt to breach the barricades around the plaza, about 100 protesters against the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement pushed against 6,000 riot police. The protesters acted boldly. “Why are you blocking us? Someone responsible from the police must answer!” a woman said loudly. There appeared to be no higher police official, while young riot police troops stood motionless. Even after the protesters left, the intersection near the plaza was flooded with police officers.
What are they so scared about?
The podcast “Naneun Ggomsuda,” or “I’m a Petty-Minded Creep,” is treated like a hero among the protesters, and one of its hosts, Kim Ou-joon, often says “Don’t be cowed!” In the cynical political parody “dedicated to your highness [President Lee Myung-bak],” the show has told the anti-Lee forces to not be cowed. And yet, the scene at Gwanghwamun Plaza showed that it was the Lee administration, not the protesters, that needed courage. The administration must have been so fearful that it had to mobilize thousands of police troops to counter such a small number of protesters.
The talk show’s Yeouido concert on Nov. 30 was probably received as a more serious threat to the government. The police said about 15,000 gathered, while the organizers of the event said 50,000 came. No matter what the number was, a massive crowd gathered in Yeouido Plaza despite the cold night. Afterward, they left more than 300 million won in donations.
The concert participants and the passionate response of the audience actually appeared to be very threatening to the government. Politicians who had led the anti-FTA campaign stood on stage. Democratic Labor Party Representative Kim Sun-dong, who carried out a tear gas attack inside the chamber of the legislature, was treated as a patriot. DLP Chairwoman Lee Jung-hee said, “We should make President Lee go back to the mountain behind the Blue House and sing the song ‘Morning Dew’ once again.”
At the peak of the 2008 candlelight protests against the resumption of U.S. beef imports, Lee confessed that he had went to the mountain and sung the song. The confession was a symbol of his humiliation because he was trying to flatter the protesters.
Their voices are loud, but it is doubtful how representative they are. How many of them actually welcome a tear gas attack in the legislature? The majority of the public admits that the FTA was inevitable. The problem, however, is that the current administration is dragged around by a few leftists. During FTA ratification negotiations in late October, the Grand National Party practically accepted all of the Democratic Party’s demands, except on the investor-state dispute settlement provision. Even the GNP conceded that the ISD provision would be renegotiated with Washington after the pact takes effect.
And yet, the administration and the ruling party were still dragged around by opposition politicians even after the concessions. The GNP used its majority alone to pass the ratification bill amidst the tear gas attack. They gave everything, but they were still slapped hard.
It is necessary to provide proper assistance to the farming and livestock industries to protect them from the expected losses after the FTA takes effect. But political decisions will bring about unnecessarily high budget burdens. The government said it is difficult to provide financial assistance to meet the GNP’s pledges.
It is time to recalculate. Due to the power shortage, price hikes are inevitable. But the politicians have promised to expand the subsidized agricultural electricity price to other facilities such as rice-polishing mills and livestock waste treatment plants. The feasibility really needs to be assessed.
The larger problem is welfare. Amidst a widening wealth gap, expanding welfare programs is inevitable. But the direction and the speed must be decided extremely carefully.
The administration and the ruling party, however, are stepping on the accelerator as if they are scared to fall behind the opposition. On Nov. 29, President Lee declared a plan for free child care. The program used to be the policy of the Democratic Labor Party, but the Democratic Party followed to adopt it. And after the school lunch referendum in Seoul in August, even the GNP is accepting the idea.
Political parties ahead of an election often promise pork-barrel policies, but the administration must be prudent. According to Lee’s announcement, free child care, currently provided to the bottom 70 percent of households by income, would be expanded to all. When the lunch referendum took place, the Blue House had said free meals for the wealthy was a populist policy, but Lee’s latest promise directly contradicts the position.
Until last year, the government planned to expand free child care by 10 percent every year, but suddenly announced that it would be provided to everyone. The direction was changed abruptly. And once again, the aftermath is a high burden. It requires the government to come up with unplanned resources, forcing it to either increase debt or cut spending.
The administration must not present policies as if it is being chased. The Lee administration has more than one year left in its term. Even if it provides more welfare programs, it must never be under the thumb of politicians. Before the lunch referendum, Lee said, “I understand that politicians before an election feel that the very moment is very urgent, but it is more important to make sure that the country moves in the right direction.” That attitude is even more desperately needed as time goes by. It’s no time to be cowed.
*The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Oh Byung-sang