A time for fearlessness

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A time for fearlessness

A king in the Joseon Dynasty did not have an omnipotent power. He had to compromise with the nobility. But when his royal authority was challenged, he did not sit back in defeat. He would strip the title of those who offended him and send them into exile. He would take their lives if necessary. His subordinates needed as much courage as possible - enough to stake their lives - to raise their voices against the king. The monarch and his subjects at court had to keep a balance of power through mutual checks.

The governing power today is different from a feudal or military regime. A subordinate does not have to risk his or her life to speak honestly. One does not worry about being carried off to a dark room for being intransigent or noncompliant. If he or she does not like the ways of the president, they can simply resign from office. Yet in this government, few appear to have the nerve to talk straight to the president. Those who disapprove of the president are either forced or pressured to leave. Those remaining are the obedient. There is little discussion in meetings. Everyone just jots down every word of the president. The president’s voice has become more and more assertive. People blame her for being narrow-minded. But are her aides and ministers faultless? How many tried really hard to talk to the president?

The National Assembly has been a stumbling block, and the government achieved little on the economic front. Soon after the president took office in 2013 her government embarked on a tax probe of companies as a part of efforts to shed light on unlicensed and unregistered economic activities. Tax revenues in 2013 increased by 1.6 trillion won ($1.38 billion) from 2012. Smaller companies received a double whammy of reduced revenues from poor economy and tax probes.

Underground economic activities is, in fact, an ambiguous term. Bureaucrats would have known how difficult the work of digging up underground activities would be. But few questioned. They just pushed ahead to please the president. We didn’t hear any more about that campaign in the following year.

The government slogan of “creative economy” was also incomprehensible from the start, although we have heard it a lot for the last three years. We understand it is aimed to create value-added jobs and revive the economy through new areas of growth. Still the policies are confusing. The so-called innovation centers and Youth Hope Fund the government sponsored have been far from creative. It may have been a bad idea to leave the campaign in the hands of bureaucrats in the first place. Doosan Group donated money to the Youth Hope Fund. Shortly thereafter, it started laying off young people who were only months into their jobs.

The government’s real estate policy raised controversy, and succeeded in providing a breakthrough in a market stalemate by lifting regulations. The revived real estate market helped sustain domestic demand, and the economy would have fared more poorly without it. But signs of side effects have begun to surface. Authorities must navigate for a soft-landing. The government pushed back a plan to strengthen home-related consumer loans to February in Seoul and May in other areas instead of the original January deadline in apparent consideration of the April parliamentary election.

Deputy Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan and his economic team appear to be entirely engrossed with the election. Choi, who will be running in April, is one of the key members of the faction in the ruling party loyal to the president. Yoo Il-ho, another key ally of the president and former land, infrastructure, transport minister, chose to succeed Choi instead of trying for a third-term in the legislature, but nevertheless has been criticized for using a government office to build credential as a politician. So was Yoo Ki-june, former minister of oceans and fisheries. Trade, Industry, and Energy Minister Yoon Sang-jick is also hoping to run. With the attention of the commanders of our economy entirely on votes, it is no wonder that economy policy, which normally requires cool-headed judgment, is without any congruity or sustainability.

The economy is expected to turn worse next year. It is looking at unprecedented deflationary challenges. Businessmen sigh that conditions are worse than during the financial crisis in the late 1990s. The election simply makes everything worse. Yoon, the candidate to become new commander-in-chief of economic policy, had to decide between a legislative seat and the deputy prime ministerial post until the last minute. Can we truly expect economic policy free from political motivation?

Yoo will last two years at most even if he serves until the end of President Park Geun-hye’s term. It won’t matter to him if he drops out along the way. Since he doesn’t need to stake everything on saving his seat, he will be better positioned to work boldly. He does not need to faithfully follow the lead of his predecessor. He must veer away if the path does not seem right. He should push ahead with necessary policies like deregulations and reforms on zombie companies. He doesn’t need to stay on the safe side. He must talk straight to the president. What can stop him? It isn’t as if he is risking his life as in the days of kings.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 28, Page 32

The author is the acting editor-in-chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Koh Hyun-kohn

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