Reading her own reviews
President Park Geun-hye tends to shine more when she’s abroad than when she’s home. She brought back tangible results from her recent nine-day tour of China, Myanmar and Australia. She maintained a balanced and confident role among leaders of global powers like the United States, China, and Japan during the series of summit meetings of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, the East Asia Summit, Asean Plus Three (South Korea, China, and Japan) and the G-20. The dividends on the economic front were even bigger than on the diplomatic side. She struck free trade agreements (FTAs) with both China and New Zealand. Her commitment to economic reforms garnered praise from world organizations.
Park did not hide her satisfaction over her overseas trip. In fact, she shared it in an out-of-characer chat with startled reporters on Air Force One. Her approval rating also improved after the trip. According to Realmeter, the president’s approval rating gained 0.4 percentage point to reach 49.1 percent after her return. Her disapproval rating fell 1.3 percentage points to 43.8 percent. She should be most proud of the grade she received for her three-year outline to reform the Korean economy during the G-20 summit in Brisbane. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) gave top ratings to South Korea’s economic agenda after reviewing public economic plans by the group of 20 advanced economies.
If the reforms are carried out as planned, the two organizations expect Korean gross domestic product to gain by 4.4 percent. Park should be feeling good about herself for receiving such international recognition and support for her economic agenda and elevating the country’s name on the global stage.
But the praise and positive evaluations do not exactly fit the reality of the country’s economic performance. The economy is expected to underperform its growth target of 3.5 percent this year and the 4.0 percent target for next year. Growth estimates for next year range between 2.9 percent and 4.1 percent, but most agree it will probably be around 3.7 percent. Economic forecasts for the Korean economy are turning more and more conservative. Our real growth is a distance from the theoretical estimates by the IMF and OECD.
The economic agenda that so impressed the international institutions has been underway for a while. After Park announced an outline during a New Year’s address early this year, the government set three major agenda items, 10 action plans and 59 specific measures. The keystone was strengthening economic fundamentals, innovating the economy, balancing growth between domestic demand and exports, and preparing for unification.
How far the plan has been carried out is unknown. Ahn Chong-bum, senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, said reforms in the public sector, improvement in unfair business practices between large and smaller companies, FTA settlements, normalization of the housing market and deregulation were key areas of progress from the three-year plan. He, however, could not explain how they had helped the economy. What we have in reality is downgraded economic growth, low employment, a continuing real estate slump, sluggish domestic demand and - horror upon horrors - a slowdown in exports.
It’s too early to evaluate the three-year plan, which was also set back by the April 16 Sewol ferry sinking. The entire country screeched to a halt for three months as the search for the missing bodies went on. The external front was bad, too, with the double whammy of a weak yen and soft demand in China. The government’s excuses are understandable. But the IMF and OECD also said the economy would benefit only when the reform outline went as planned. What they are saying is merely that the plan is a good one. Just because one sets an admirable goal doesn’t mean that goal will be reached in the end. What is important is action. Excuses are no use. Results speak for themselves.
The government should not be content with praise from on high. It is wonderful that the president has made a good impression on the world. But her people at home are hungry for results. An economic agenda is supposed to make lives better for people at home, not to prompt praise abroad. Time is running short. The president must prove that her good plans lead to even better action.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 19, Page 32
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jong-soo
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