‘Mr. Principles’ navigates a world of negotiations

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‘Mr. Principles’ navigates a world of negotiations


Kim Dae-hwan, Chairman, Economic and Social Development Commission

Kim Dae-hwan, chairman of the Economic and Social Development Commission, is known for his nickname, “Mr. Principles.”

Serving as the minister of the Ministry of Employment and Labor between 2004 and 2006, he always put a heavy emphasis on rules and ethics.

Of his many anecdotes, one dates back to 2004, when the National Assembly didn’t introduce a bill for irregular workers that had already been created with the agreement of laborers, management and government. The reason given was that some labor union members opposed the bill.

Kim said, “No National Assembly is influenced by the opinion of a few workers when it has to introduce a certain bill. You can’t get access to a public welfare bill based on a political belief or interest.”

When Kim was appointed as labor minister during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, he asked the late president to “keep a low profile when it comes to labor problems.”

The ESDC is a presidential advisory council on labor issues; the chairman position is a minister-level job.

It is a return to politics for Kim, who as the head of the commission will need not only principles, but also the ability to navigate and negotiate between three different parties - labor, management and government.

The JoongAng Ilbo was granted the first interview with Kim after he took the position. Here are some excerpts.

Q. I heard you accepted the role on the committee after much consideration.

A. At first, I couldn’t see the direction of the Park Geun-hye administration’s philosophy on employment and labor policies. But I came to understand that President Park has a lot of interest in vulnerable groups of society. She is also well aware of the nature of labor, management and government issues. She knows she can’t get what she wants just by pushing policies.

Did you know President Park before you were appointed as the chairman of the committee?

I met her just once when I served as labor minister. I paid a visit to her office when she was the chairwoman of the Grand National Party in order to explain a bill on irregular workers. She said, “I don’t know much about irregular jobs.”

I was surprised because she was being so frank. But I began to explain why we need to protect these irregular workers and she gladly said, “There is no reason for us to oppose the bill.” It took me 20 or 30 minutes to explain the bill.

Many people were surprised when you were appointed as head of the committee. You’re known for sticking to rules and regulations, but this job requires more than that. You have to persuade and negotiate over certain issues with various groups of people.

When you stay true to rules and regulations, you can discuss and negotiate. Without the former, it is impossible to do the latter. I will focus on activating dialogue in the beginning (of my term) but the process should be thorough and based on principles.

Whenever there are issues to be solved, laborers, management and government officials should play leading roles in discussions, but it always seems like the National Assembly gets involved.

Laborers and managers should discuss their problems on their own, but labor unions have brought their issues into the political arena. Politicians are using labor issues as a means to achieve their political aims, which is not ideal at all. You can’t be swayed by political beliefs or interests when judging these labor issues because in the long run, it will make it harder to reach a solution.

You have reshuffled the committee less than a month after your inauguration. You’ve added citizens as another important pillar along with labor, management and government. Some say that will distract the committee from staying focused on its original goal.

Here, “citizens” specifically refers to women, civic groups and small and medium-sized companies. The reason I added these groups is that we’ve been neglecting their voices and needs. And that has polarized the labor market. The labor market is getting even worse.

I think we need more flexible policies for members of labor unions at conglomerates and in the public sector. We also need to protect employees working for smaller companies and irregular workers. It is time to bring a large-scale renovation to the entire labor market. That’s why I added these specific groups.

You’ve reformed the system but the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions still isn’t involved in the committee after it withdrew in 1999, citing the committee’s lack of political balance.

It’s definitely abnormal that we don’t have the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, but it is also abnormal to woo it into joining us. Strings shouldn’t be attached when the confederation joins us. I once told people that they shouldn’t use talks as a means to achieve what they want. If the confederation is a responsible organization, it has to listen and understand the voices of others.

Labor, management and government agreed earlier this year to work together on creating more available jobs, but the public is not feeling the effect of the so-called “grand compromise” yet.

It was the third compromise after the one in 2004 and another in 2005. I know the compromise is quite abstract although it has relieved anxiety of the public somewhat. But we need more action plans. Looking at the compromise for this year, it says the three parties will strive to achieve a 70 percent employment rate.

You’ve launched a committee within the ESDC that will assess whether each party will follow through with their promises or not.

Many compromises and promises aren’t put into action. It’s quite serious. Every party should fulfill their promises. President Park promised she would support our committee so that we can press the government on things that are already compromised. Labor and management might oppose the assessment committee but this is what we need if we really want to see more action plans coming out. I’ll carry on patiently.

You were very interested in vocational training when you were a labor minister. How about this time?

I think people who receive unemployment benefits have to find a new job as soon as possible. Countries with well-established social security are very aggressive in educating the unemployed. They offer diverse vocational training programs.

We need to come up with better vocational training centers so that anyone can get in and learn new skills regardless of their academic background or income.

BY KIM KI-CHAN [so@joongang.co.kr]
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