[Viewpoint] Standing up against populism

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[Viewpoint] Standing up against populism

Korean society has quickly regained its better sense after a rackety election in April. The public was exposed to how far, and how low, the puppeteers behind the campaigns are willing to go, dividing and unsettling society in the process. The main opposition, by forming a united front to fight the conservative ruling camp, only ended up losing face and credibility.

Regardless of the familiar racketeering, Koreans remained calm during the rekindled mad cow scare. The majority referred to reputable scientific findings and remained calm over the news of a case discovered in California. The street rally to demand a ban on U.S.-beef imports garnered little support. The trumpet call has so far failed to draw an audience because there is simply no need for such a reaction.

Park Geun-hye, the front-runner among presidential candidates, publicly gulped down stew made of American beef. She had initially joined the chorus demanding the cessation of customs clearances on U.S. beef until they were proven safe. Calls to prevent U.S.-beef imports from entering the local market have waned over the last week. Society has acted rationally - unlike four years ago when they were swept away by bizarre rumors and theories. Perhaps we have turned remarkably saner and smarter.

Suh Kyu-yong, the country’s agriculture minister, should receive credit for ensuring that the public did not spiral into the same trap. He was awoken at dawn on April 25 by a call from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul informing him of the new case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

It was decision time. Some of his senior aides suggested they immediately stop customs clearance, fearing the chaos they underwent when Seoul resumed imports of American beef after the earlier discovery of infected cattle in 2006. The minister instead ordered tougher inspections after studying the cattle type (the recent case was found in a dairy cow) and safety and trade repercussions. He reported his decision to the president. The president stood by the minister’s judgment.

Civic groups monitoring and advocating meat safety as well as opposition parties demanded an immediate import ban. Park and the ruling party suggested suspending clearance, which is a de facto ban on entry. The president and the minister, however, stood firm. Suh responded unwaveringly to fierce attacks from politicians. In the National Assembly, he logically articulated his reasons, citing international guidelines on cases of mad cow disease. He argued there was no need to take action when there was no problem. The politicians stepped back. The standing committee voted on a resolution to block customs clearances, but the National Assembly put off the vote.

It wasn’t the first time Suh’s integrity prevented market chaos. When beef prices tumbled in early January, farmers attempted to raid the streets of Seoul with their cattle, demanding increased government purchases to restore prices. Suh set his foot down and refused to give in to the threat. He reminded the public that authorities were conducting quarantine inspections at the time and warned that they would press charges against farmers if the cows used in the rally ended up catching foot-and-mouth disease. Farmers called off their cow parade protest and stayed home even though the government did not respond to their demand for subsidies.

In 1988, Suh was the head of the vegetable division of the Ministry for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Pepper prices crashed due to bumper yields. Farmers rushed to the Central Government Complex, demanding the government purchase their crops instead. Suh came out of the crowd with his shirt torn apart. His wife wept at the sight when he returned home. The minister requested him to increase the government purchase quota for his home province. Suh stubbornly refused.

Bahk Jae-wan, minister of strategy and finance, took heavy beating from political parties by sending strong warning against their race for populist campaign platforms. He calculated exactly how much the next government would have to spend in order to honor the campaign promises on welfare policies. The cost came around to 165 trillion won ($144 billion) for the Democratic United Party and 75 trillion won for the Saenuri Paty. The public jumped at the size of the bill. Bahk went through numbers and did the math to break the bewitching spell of flowery words. The Wall Street Journal praised his guts for standing up against economic populism during election season and called him an “honest Korean” in an editorial.

The president should be thankful that he has upright ministers who defend his administration.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin
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