Park has an explainer-in-chief

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Park has an explainer-in-chief

Cho Won-dong, senior secretary to the President for economic affairs, visits the Blue House press room as many as five times a week to meet journalists and give them background on the Park Geun-hye government’s economic policies.

When the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport announced a package of measures to stimulate the real estate market on April 1, he met the press to give a briefing on the policies. So too when the Ministry of Strategy and Finance and the Financial Services Commission briefed President Park on their 2013 policy at Blue House on April 3.

He spends so much time in the press room, in fact, that journalists have nicknamed him “Mr. Why Are You Here Again.” Government ministries and agencies complain that journalists listen to his version of their policies, not their own briefings.

In short, the bluntly outspoken Cho has become chief cheerleader for the new administration’s economic policies, explainer-in-chief and possibly a behind the scene policy maker as well considering his career as a technocrat in the Finance Ministry.

Cho emphasized the importance of a supplementary budget on March 28 and 29 by saying without it Korea could face its own version of a “fiscal cliff” due to shrinking tax revenues caused by low economic growth. That made front page headlines and helped blunt criticism of the budget as being the president’s way fulfill her campaign promises to widen welfare.

On April 3, Cho told journalists, “It will be better for the Bank of Korea to cut the key rate” ? the first monetary policy nudge by the Park administration.

While other presidential aides run away from controversial issues, Cho is known to bring them up himself.

“The Fair Trade Commission should share its information on conglomerates’ inter-subsidiary dealings with the National Tax Service,” Cho told reporters last week. “This isn’t from President Park. It’s my own thought.”

But analysts believe that Cho would not be able to make such remarks without the president’s trust.

Cho’s role in policy decision-making process was highlighted at an economic policy review meeting that President Park presided over on March 28. Analysts say that Cho have more input into policies than Hyun Oh-seok, deputy prime minister for the economy.

Some suggest that President Park may have less expertise with economics than predecessors Lee Myung-bak, Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung, and Cho’s role has naturally expanded as a result.

Under former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, former army generals with little knowledge of economics, finance ministers and chief presidential aides for economic affairs took bigger roles in economy strategies. Cho was a technocrat in the Finance Ministry, served as the head of the Korea Institute of Public Finance and also worked at the now-defunct Economic Planning Board, which made economic development plans and managed the government’s budget.

Although Blue House insiders like Cho’s easy way with the press, critics warn that he may undermine Hyun Oh-seok, deputy prime minister for the economy.

“The role of chief presidential secretary for economic affairs is to support the president,” said an official at an economic ministry. “But it’s the deputy prime minister for the economy who runs and oversee economic policies and he will have to take all responsibility if something goes wrong.”

But journalists covering the Ministry of Strategy and Finance complain that Hyun has such a low profile he’s almost invisible. When the ministry announced the first economic policy package of the Park government on March 28, an underlings gave the press briefing.

When the ministry briefed to President Park on major economic and financial policies at the Blue House on April 3, first vice finance minister Choo Kyung-ho was in charge. Hyun didn’t even show.

The only off the cuff statement he has given to reporters so far was, “I’m sorry that I can’t give you a story.”

As a result, Hyun has also earned a nickname from reporters: “Mr. Never There.”

By Choi Joon-ho, Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]

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