A promise is a promise

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A promise is a promise

President Park Geun-hye and her administration are under fire for backtracking on campaign pledges. A number of instances of backing down on campaign promises flies in the face of the signature reputation of the president, who presents herself as an individual who prizes the politics of commitment, credibility and conviction. They question her campaign slogan promising to be the first woman president who will honor the promises made to the people.

Elections in a democratic society are exchanges of promises. Campaign pledges are basically political contracts and therefore the elementary foundations of credibility for a candidate.

If pledges were made even though they were impossible to deliver, the covenant becomes a lie. If they were promised repeatedly, regardless of their infeasibility, the candidate is proven even more unreliable. Because campaign promises are a self-imposed set of terms of a contract, they can serve as the most neutral litmus test of the performance of a president and government regardless of its support and opposition base.

We can take the example of former President Lee Myung-bak government’s key campaign promises. His four-river restoration project has been a complete failure according to the assessment of the Board of Audit and Inspection. His government scored poorly in human rights, public affairs and democratic development.

In fact, the economy was his major strength. President Lee won the campaign by highlighting the economic mess his liberal predecessor had made and described himself as the “chief executive” of the economy, pledging to deliver an economy generating annual growth of 7 percent, $40,000 per capita income and eventually becoming the world’s seventh-largest economy.

How did that work out? The economy grew 2.9 percent per annum on average over the five years of the Lee administration, even below the 4.34 percent average growth under former President Roh Moo-hyun. Export growth was only 9.14 percent compared with 18.16 percent in Roh’s time.

The growth rate of employment hit just 1 percent on average under Lee, even below the 1.1 percent under Roh. Consumer prices rose 3.34 percent under Lee and 2.92 percent under Roh. Overall, the economy fared better under the Roh administration. Per capita income increased meagerly from $21,590 in 2007 to $22,590 in 2012 under Lee. Under Roh, the number jumped from $12,094 in 2002 to $21,590 in 2007. Even leaving out welfare, labor, equality and the public sector, the Lee administration failed disastrously in fulfilling its campaign pledges.

Security is another primary pillar of Korean politics. So what about Lee’s North Korean policy under his catchphrases of denuclearization and opening up in order to help North Korea achieve per capita income of $3,000? That policy was cast aside after North Korea performed nuclear tests, further secluding itself and putting its economy in a nosedive.

Seoul could not really be blamed for Pyongyang insisting on playing the wayward maverick. The Lee government may have thought itself clever for coming up with a tit-for-tat campaign as a better alternative to the all-too-generous North Korean policy of the previous two liberal governments.

According to the Unification Ministry’s data on inter-Korean economic exchanges and trade, general commerce, commissioned processing and economic cooperation including the joint-venture Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tourism program, financial inflows to North Korea totaled $2.17 billion and outflows $3.45 billion, amounting to trade of $5.62 billion during the Roh administration. However, inflows reached $4.9 billion and outflows $4.2 billion, totaling $9.1 billion under the Lee administration.

Capital flows to North Korea also surged under the Lee administration. According to government documents given to a National Assembly audit in 2010, capital transfer to North Korea amounted to $1.34 billion under the Kim Dae-jung administration, including $420 million paid for the Kumgang tourism program and the $400 million Hyundai Group spent on North Korean projects. In the Roh administration, the figure jumped to $1.41 billion. But the Lee administration sent a total of $765 million as of the end of June 2010, far exceeding the amount during the first halves of the two previous governments.

Although it spent more, inter-Korean relations were the worst under Lee. North Korea went ahead with nuclear tests and sank our Cheonan warship, killing 46 sailors, and shelled an inhabited island near the tense maritime border in the Yellow Sea for the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War. The Lee government not only failed in the basic duty of protecting civilian lives and properties, but also didn’t even retaliate very strongly against the deadly attacks.

Despite a hawkish stance, economic exchanges, trade and capital transfers increased during the Lee administration. Regardless of the ending of the Mount Kumgang tourism program and sanctions following the Cheonan attack, our trade and economic cooperation with North Korea actually flourished under the Lee administration. And yet South Korean companies suffered a total loss of $12.4 billion due to the conservative administration’s sanctions. What an irony!

We have to ask what the Lee government actually accomplished in office and how that compared to the promises it made before taking power. We sincerely hope the Park government goes in the opposite direction.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University and visiting professor at Free University of Berlin.

by Park Myug-rim
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