All the president’s beliefs

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All the president’s beliefs

What does Park Geun-hye believe in? I don’t mean spiritually. That is intriguing too: she has had links to both Catholicism and Buddhism. But her personal beliefs are her own business.

Politically then, what is her creed? For sure, she had a strong belief in becoming president. How hard she strove and maneuvered to that end, only to be thwarted when Lee Myung-bak pipped her at the post in 2007. Yet she persevered and in 2012 the prize finally fell to her.

My question is more about policy. What, specifically and concretely, did Park Geun-hye wish to achieve as president? What legacy of accomplishments does she hope to leave behind?

Here, as elsewhere, Park can be hard to pin down. Take North Korea. ‘Trustpolitik’ was her original slogan, but in office her focus shifted to unification - which rattled Pyongyang. Now we have a new accord, and (hopefully) family reunions and more. We had better wait and see.

Other issues won’t wait, for time is of the essence. What were, and are, the president’s plans for South Korea’s economy and society? That’s what matters to citizens. Her term of office is already half over. How well is this captain steering the ship of state and in what direction?

These are real questions, not rhetorical ones. The answers are far from clear. Over time, Park Geun-hye’s policy priorities - or at least the slogans she espouses - have shifted considerably.

Three years ago, her message was clear ? and radical, for a conservative. Rebranding the old Grand National Party (GNP) as Saenuri (New Frontier), she changed its colors from blue to red; not just symbolically but in policy terms. Espousing “economic democracy” - a vague if evocative term, enshrined as a goal in the Constitution - Park condemned inequality, bashed big business (always a popular sport) and promised to enlarge the social welfare safety net.

The liberal opposition howled that she was stealing their clothes. But this shift away from Lee Myung-bak’s unpopular supply-side economics toward the center ground was a master-stroke politically. Park’s more compassionate-sounding conservatism won her the election in 2012.

Was it just a cynical ploy to gain power? In office she swiftly changed her tune. Kim Jong-in, the architect of economic democracy, was fired even before Park entered the Blue House. As president, on major diplomatic visits (e.g. to China) she brings a retinue of tycoons, just like her predecessors. Small business, meanwhile, remains a Cinderella compared to the chaebol.

Welfare, Park has taken more seriously. More free day care and higher old-age pensions are tangible gains, even if her full program proved unaffordable, as critics had warned all along.

In office Park embraced new buzzwords. First came “creative economy,” spearheaded by a new, clunkily named Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning. The chaebol, accused by critics like Ahn Cheol-soo of stifling start-ups, have been drafted in to incubate them at new local “creative economy centers” around the country. Good idea, or gimmick? Time will tell.

In February 2014, a year after taking office (why wait so long?), Park launched a much more comprehensive program: her so-called 474 vision. Since she and Lee Myung-bak are hardly bosom pals, it was odd to pick a term so slavishly derived from her predecessor’s 747 plan.

Lee’s 7s were both absurd. A now mature economy can never regain 7 percent annual GDP growth, nor be the seventh largest in the world now that the far biggers BRICs have taken off. (But had MB instead targeted becoming seventh largest trading nation, he’d have been right.)

Lee’s 4, retained by Park, is also unattainable on their watches. Per capita income of $40,000, even measured at purchasing power parity (PPP) which renders it higher - $34,346 in 2014 - can’t be reached until 2020 at the earliest. When exactly it comes will depend, of course, on GDP growth. Here Park’s 4 percent is more realistic, but even that looks a stretch currently.

Park’s 7, less bombastic than Lees’ pair, is to raise the employment rate to 70 percent from its current 64 percent. How? Answering that moves us on from merely quantitative benchmarks to what really matters: qualitative analysis, and reforms that can effect structural change.

The full Three-Year Plan for Economic Innovation, to use 474’s proper title, was incredibly ambitious. The Ministry of Strategy and Finance specified three strategies with nine focuses - and didn’t stop there. MOSF also issued a list of no fewer than 59 goals under three headings: Fair and Efficient Economy (15 tasks), Growth through Innovation (25 tasks), and Balancing Domestic Consumption and Exports (18 tasks). That totals 58. As if this wasn’t enough, item No. 59 was - you guessed? - Preparing for Unification. In a further hostage to fortune, deadlines were set for all of these (except unification), some of which are already starting to fall due.

Item No. 59 is the giveaway. This wasn’t actually a plan at all, just a wish-list of all the reforms Park Geun-hye hoped to make happen. What happened instead was the Sewol, which swiftly sank 474 as well. The ferry tragedy not only dominated politics all year, but challenged 474’s thrust. Park wanted less regulation; the Sewol suggested Korea needs more, or at least better.

2015 saw MERS as a further unwelcome distraction, mercifully short-lived. So what now? Back to 474 and finish the job? Apparently not. Searching MOSF’s website for 474, or even the Three Year Plan, yields no results. You’d also struggle to find that mega-list of 59 tasks, still there but very well hidden. (I only unearthed it by having copied the link at the time.)

When 474 was launched, the question was: Can it fly? Just 20 months later, like the ill-fated Malaysian flight MH370, this flagship seems to have sunk without a trace. How very peculiar.

Meanwhile the president’s restless mind has moved on, or zoomed in. This year, labor market reform is the talk of the town. That was a major part of 474, and obviously it’s important - as well as very difficult. But why exactly has this particular issue suddenly become top banana? And what further policy priority will be Park’s new flavor of the year in 2016, and 2017?

One hates to be cynical, but it is hard to detect any strategic consistency in Park Geun-hye’s policy record since 2012. I am sure she means well, and none of the several successive ideas she has embraced (if only to later ditch) is bad; but what does they all add up to? This helmsman steers erratically, veering from one slogan or enthusiasm to the next in a rather zigzag course.

To end, two further worries. The economy grows ever more slowly, highlighting the urgent need for effective reforms. But elections are approaching, bringing the risk that sound policy to tackle deep-rooted structural problems will be sacrificed in favor of populist placebos. Will Saenuri embrace drastic labor reforms if they fear these would prove a vote-loser next April?

Park Geun-hye still has 28 months left to serve. She should use this to craft a holistic policy approach whose components fit together in a plausible sequence of linkages. The economy’s structural issues cannot be solved overnight. But posterity will thank Park if she steers a straighter and clearer course henceforth than hitherto.

*The author is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in the UK.

by Aidan Foster-Carter

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