[Viewpoint] Economic war with powerless leader

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[Viewpoint] Economic war with powerless leader

About two months ago, the Blue House hosted a private homecoming party. Former presidential secretaries and officers were invited. At the gathering, President Lee Myung-bak said, “Even on my last day as the mayor of Seoul, I worked until the evenings. There will be no lame duck until my last day of the presidential term.” Since only the closest aides were in attendance, they expected President Lee to discuss secretive political issues and the upcoming presidential election. However, President Lee only stressed that he is determined to work hard until the end.

But there is troubled air over the Blue House. Former representative Lee Sang-deuk’s detention was shocking, but it was expected for a while. A more painful psychological blow seems to be the graft scandal of Kim Hee-jung, the personal secretary and so-called “doorknob” to the president. He had a reputation as a prudent and quiet aide who had been assisting Lee Myung-bak for 15 years. He hardly met with people outside of the Blue House. Insiders have been shocked by the allegation that he received money from a savings bank. President Lee has prepared an apology to the nation, but it has been postponed since other scandals could break out at any time.

When an organization becomes embroiled in a scandal, its members become disorganized. The presidential office for political affairs used to have 15 to 16 staff members, but five have left already. The vacancies have not been filled. The office says its hands and feet are tied and they are barely making situation reports. Other general staff members at the Blue House are in a similar situation. They either return to their original positions or hope to get overseas assignments. They hope to launder their resumes before the next administration.

It’s a good thing that President Lee is focusing on the economy. He most frequently meets with Kim Dae-gi, senior secretary for economic affairs. On top of the European financial crisis, the declining growth of China has shed doubt on the global economy. Exports, capital investments and consumer spending have plummeted, and 3 percent growth cannot be guaranteed. Uncertainty hovers over household debt and real estate as well. The economic crisis needs a response. A clear sign was the unexpected interest rate cut by the Bank of Korea.

Unlike the sense of crisis in the Blue House, Yeouido politicians are in a different mood as they prepare for the presidential election. Whenever the finance minister speaks, politicians attack.

Both the ruling and opposition parties are eager to differentiate themselves from the president. However, the global financial crisis is not over. The cash injection and interest rate cut are mere sugarcoated pills. The broke consumers, growing debts and governments with exhausted treasuries are tormenting the global economy. For a while, the countries around the world have to wage a hard fight for survival - far from recovery. However, Korean politicians are fighting over “economic democratization” and “welfare.” Sometimes, the fight itself is a luxury.

As the Bank of Korea lowered the interest rate, foreign media raised a concern that if Korea is struggling, it signals a catastrophe for Asia and the world. So far, the Korean economy has been considered relatively healthy. However, it may be an illusion created by the triumphs of Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motors. Minister of Strategy and Finance Park Jae-wan cautiously said, “We need to hold out as much as we can.” He is right. The best quality of a great sharpshooter is his ability to wait for the target to be within gunshot. The financial and banking prescriptions should be saved until the last minute, and it would be most effective to concentrate fire when the crisis comes.

Most of all, it is worrisome that the Blue House is becoming isolated. The economic crises in the past have always come during lame duck sessions. When the economy is sluggish, the people, government and industries need to work together. However, it is not an easy task.

The good news is that President Lee has experience in overcoming a global financial crisis. The bad news is that he does not have much power. The corruption scandals should be investigated thoroughly, but the president should be given some power to save the economy.

Frankly, the Lee administration’s prescription sounds more realistic than the plans proposed by the ruling and opposition parties. An economic war is in progress around the world. We may be bringing calamity upon ourselves with a civil war.

*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Cheol-ho
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