The president’s makeover
A single swallow does not a summer make. President Park Geun-hye’s presumed lifting of a ban on government officials playing golf may just be a swallow. But I want to find some summer in it.
In fact, I didn’t expect Park to talk about revitalizing the golf business at a cabinet meeting Tuesday. Park has been negative about the sport and made a warning to people on the public payroll at the very beginning of her term. At a cabinet meeting, she said, “Servicemen on active duty played golf at a critical moment of security. Beware this doesn’t happen again.” Her chilly tone spread among the officials who locked their golf bags in their attics. The president is usually firm with her sentiments, so I thought she wouldn’t lift the unofficial ban in her term.
A few months later, Lee Kyeong-jae, then-chairman of the Korea Communication Commission and a pro-Park figure, suggested lifting the ban as golf would stimulate consumption. The president didn’t even respond. Later, then-Chief of Staff Huh Tae-yeol, who is a golf aficionado, said that it was OK for officials to play golf at their own expenses during vacations. Nobody else at the Blue House bought that. After all, the president later asked, “Do secretaries actually have time to play golf?”
Message received, Madame President.
Lifting the golf ban is, of course, trivial. Allowing civil servants to play golf will not revive the economy. But the economy is driven by psychology. Spending increases when the rich are allowed, or encouraged, to open their wallets. After the foreign currency crisis in the late 1990s, President Kim Dae-jung was determined to revive the economy. He encouraged those around him to play golf, and the effort was a manifestation of his sincerity.
At a time of a very rocky global economy, Koreas’ consumer sentiment is even grimmer than in the late 1990s. Average price increases remained at the 0 percent level for two months in a row. While the government and the Bank of Korea claim the situation is still OK, a fear of deflation is hovering over the market. Our core inflation rate is lower than those in Europe and Japan.
The government needs to do all it can to boost sentiment. Golf is a simple industry. Its fortunes can be changed by a president. The timing is also good. After the National Assembly passes the so-called Kim Young-ran anticorruption bill, civil servants playing golf will not lead to any problems.
Also, Park broke through her reputation for stubbornness smoothly, with a joke at a cabinet meeting. She asked the minister of culture, sports and tourism, “Would you be glad if you’re ordered to take the lead in playing golf?” She then said, with a bit of disarming sheepishness, “It’s not that I actually banned playing golf.” The president should be able to change her position if she realizes she has been wrong.
Changing her mind is the way to go. With her approval ratings below 30 percent, many of her core supporters have kissed her goodbye. While many say the Park administration is over, I don’t want to believe it. Park is trained in despair and has been changed by ordeals. If she is faced with a trial, she needs to bring back those who left her. The first thing she needs to do is to part with her chief of staff and three closest aides. This is the most urgent task. She needs to abandon the idea that they are the only ones she can trust. When she breaks from such cronies, the people will regain trust in her sincerity. Once she parts with the group that has held her too close, the citizens would start sympathizing with her again. Zhuge Liang ordered Ma Su to be executed for the sake of the country even though he cared for Ma deeply. As a nationalist, Park must make a similar choice, and it will help those three aides as well. They would not want her to fall into a pit because of them.
Also, Park needs to bring back those who were used and discarded by her. She doesn’t have to give them back the positions they once held. But she needs to make peace with Kim Chong-in, the architect of economic democratization, and Lee Sang-don, a critical conservative. A dinner would be nice. We all know how terrible she is at communication. So such gestures as these would be enough to show that she has changed her mind, and that more than a single swallow has appeared over the horizon. When 10 swallows come, summer will be here.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 5, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yi Jung-jae