Brave new worldIn her first news conference since her inauguration, President Park Geun-hye remained focused and stressed two bold points. The first was achieving her administration’s three-year economic reform plan and the second was preparing for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
The three-year economic plan proposed specific goals of attaining per-capita national income of $40,000, a 70 percent overall employment rate and a 4 percent annual growth rate. Those specifics blew away the ambiguities of her “creative economy” motto.
In order to boost domestic consumption, a total deregulation plan will be introduced and the president said that she would personally preside over a cabinet meeting for regulation reform. Park has returned to her signature style of putting her chips on highly specific goals. She also showed her willingness to lead inter-Korean relations forward as we prepare a foundation for reunification with the reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
It is interesting that she gave her economic reform plan a three-year timeline. Since there are four years left her term, she must have thought that the administrative engine would run out of gas by the last year. She may not want to admit it, but she accepted reality, and that kind of composure will be a great weapon as she faces formidable challenges.
The problem is that she can’t do it all by herself. She needs to entrust authority to people in the field and listen to public sentiment as well. Even if she sticks to her principles, she must make flexible and realistic decisions. She said, “I spend most of my time reading reports.” It is time she put down the paperwork and listen to average people struggling to get by.
Let’s look at the settling of the railroad union strike. On the surface, it looked like a complete victory for a Blue House that stuck to principles. However, the cabinet did not play a formidable role. The president complained that the ministers treated the strike as if it was someone else’s business. The Ministry of Security and Public Administration sent police on a failed attempt to raid the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions headquarters and arrest Korail union executives. It did not consult the Ministry of Employment and Labor, which is in charge of labor relations.
The government was the only one that didn’t realize that the people filling Seoul Plaza in the middle of winter were not merely against railway privatization. They were furious at the lack of communication with the government. From the prime minister to low-level civil servants, they only cared about what the Blue House says.
The president should drastically delegate authority. The prime enemy of a creative economy would be a school-like atmosphere in which ministers simply jot down what the president says.
Rim Che-min, former health minister in the Lee Myung-bak administration, said that when the president asked him about a specific project, he said, “Mr. President, I am an expert in the field, so please trust me with this.” The president laughed and said, “Sure, go ahead.” The current administration could learn something from that story.
A few days ago, the Korean Medical Association announced a plan to go on strike to protest medical services privatization, and Moon Hyung-pyo, the minister of health and welfare, visited the KMA. In a phone interview, he said, “On my visit, I learned that the doctors are actually interested in a medical service fee hike, and they welcomed my pledge to make efforts towards the direction.” The solution was obvious all along: talk things out.
Cells in our body go through creation and extinction simultaneously. But the body maintains its unity as an organism and lives on. Life and death are in harmony. The president and the opposition party have the same relationship. The president advocates cultural prosperity, and the Latin root for the word “culture” is “cultra,” meaning “farming.” The land is a sacred place, but it can only grow life when the soil is fertilized with dead animals and plants.
The president and the opposition party are like the land. When one side rejects the opinion of the other, it should not hurt anyone’s feelings or be personal. Politics is the art of coexistence.
The president said she doesn’t want to waste a single second. There is so much to do in so little time. But our bureaucratic system has yet to catch up with the diversity, complexity and rapid changes of the information society. The system is optimized for an industrial society, and this discrepancy is actually a worldwide trend. In order to bridge the gap, the president must delegate authority to her ministers and have the bureaucrats in the field listen to the voices of the people. Park Jai-chang, an honorary professor at Sookmyung Women’s University, suggests that decision makers in the government should be closer to the actual fields.
The president must not be buried in reports and turn civil servants into merely parrots. When the president was the opposition leader in July 2004, she said, “The development-era leadership, when Korea’s economic status was one of the lowest in the world, and the 21st-century leadership in the post-cold war, information-driven era - after we have attained economic development and democracy - are different. If the government is trying to lead everything, it will only harm the economy and the society.” Her words are still valid today.
*The author is the senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Ha-kyung