One-of-a-kind economist

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One-of-a-kind economist

I remember the day vividly. On a summer evening three years ago, Korea National Open University Professor Kim Ki-won said gloomily, “I am about to break with a friend over my writing.” Back in June, he had written “The Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Crisis and Fair Sharing of Pain,” criticizing the strike at Hanjin and the Hope Buses that supported the walkout, and he argued the union should not oppose layoffs. When there is not enough work, the company has to downsize the work force. If not, the company might have to shut down, he claimed. So instead of opposing layoffs altogether, he suggested discussing how to share the pain.

That’s why he urged the owner to take responsibility for poor management and return a considerable portion of his earnings for the living expenses of terminated workers and to support their re-employment. He added that Danish society shares the pain and strikes triggered by restructuring do not happen. To me, at least, his plan sounded like a reasonable and fresh alternative. But his friend felt differently and criticized him for making such an argument when a female labor activist had risked her life by climbing to the top of a construction crane to stage a sit-in protest of the layoffs.

On Dec. 8, Professor Kim died of liver cancer. The title on the personal blog of the liberal economist was “Echoes of Reformist Progressivism.” He was once into Marxist economics and majored in it, so no further explanation is needed about his tendency. His stance was quite different from me, a conservative. He supported universal welfare and made his contribution with the free school meal program of Kim Sang-kon, the former Gyeonggi education chief. When I asked him whether it was right to give free meals to rich children, he laughed and said, “Why are you arguing so much about serving warm meals to kids?” He also said that rich families pay more taxes and their children deserve equal benefits.

He called chaebol “imperial management,” an outdated system that needed reform. He acknowledged that owner families’ involvement allowed the companies to grow extensively. But when an incompetent and corrupt owner dominates management, there is no check-and-balance apparatus. He was devoted to the minority shareholders movement. He criticized the chaebol for becoming too big and threatening the market economy and democracy through the uneven application of laws and their enforcement. He insisted that the crimes of the chaebol and owner families should be fully punished. He often claimed to be “pro-chaebol,” rejecting the anti-chaebol label, because he though he was only trying to help them get better.

He used the same yardstick for workers and criticized Hanjin’s labor union, an unusual move for a liberal economist. He openly criticized the Daewoo Motor union for opposing GM’s acquisition of the company. Addressing the strike at Jinju Medical Center last year, he said, “The leadership of the hospital director is not functioning properly, and the medical center maintains an unnecessary work force.” While liberals support public medical centers, it is also their duty to promote efforts to enhance management efficiency. He said the problem is not the power of the union, but its abuse.

Professor Kim always strove to be precise in his arguments, as he was seeking precise solutions based on reality. He was an open liberal, one who willingly acknowledged the role of the conservative. He saw liberals and conservatives as pillars of society and was wary of confrontation. The two camps should work together instead of trying to bring each other down. The economist came up with a “yin-yang” theory, calling liberals the yin and conservatives the yang. But he believed that overly extreme rights and reform cannot coexist. He also criticized extreme liberals defending old values, and he saw gigantic unions of conglomerates and public corporations falling into this category. He attacked extreme conservatives for defending their privileged status. If he were alive to see the granddaughter of Korean Air’s founder fly into a rage over nuts, he would harshly censure her conduct.

I had different positions than Professor Kim, but I truly grieve losing him. When fierce confrontation is the only thing remaining, his spirit will be especially missed. He was not trapped by rhetoric and open to different ideas. He seriously sought better solutions based on the reality of situations and had the courage to criticize even the liberals.

Most importantly, Professor Kim transcended the materialistic pursuit of wealth and fame. I pray for the repose of his soul.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 11, Page 32

*The author, former editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo, is an adviser at the Korea Institute of Finance.

by Kim Yeong-ook

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