End-of-term bluesPresident Park Geun-hye named Lee Won-jong, former three-term governor of North Chungcheong, as her chief of staff to lead the presidential office through the last two years of her term. The Saenuri Party picked Chung Jin-suk, a veteran lawmaker from the Chungcheong region, as its floor leader to rebuild a party battered by a crushing defeat in the April general election.
Chungcheong men have made a strong comeback. The spotlight on politicians from the mostly subdued conservative region renewed speculation about the party tapping United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon — also born and raised in North Chungcheong — as its next presidential candidate.
Yet mixed signs remain, as the senior secretary in charge of political affairs retained his job despite the election defeat. The senior secretary for civil affairs was likewise spared in the reshuffle, though he was associated with a number of corruption scandals. The reshuffle suggests the president plans to keep her closest aides in the driving seat.
The economic front also saw few changes. Lawmaker Kang Seog-hoon replaced An Chong-bum as the new senior economic affairs secretary, while An was given a new title as senior secretary for policy coordination to oversee economic and other affairs. Kang, An and the former deputy prime minister for the economy, Choi Kyung-hwan, form the trio behind Park’s economic agenda. They were the joint architects of the president’s economic policies during her presidential campaign and transition period, and all are alumni of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They were recruited by former Grand National Party head Lee Hoi-chang for his presidential campaign team.
After Lee was defeated in the 2002 election, the three went on a trip to Jeju Island. They cycled around the island during the day and slept wherever they felt tired. They mostly talked about their joint interest — economic affairs — to kill time. They teamed up once more to help Park run as the presidential candidate for the conservative party in 2004. The remainder of the president’s economic agenda hinges on them and their relations with Yoo Il-ho, the current deputy prime minister for the economy, and Yim Jong-yong, chairman of the Financial Services Commission.
Three Northeast Asian countries are currently waging a common battle to restructure their industrial base. Chinese President Xi Jinping is relentlessly streamlining to resolve overcapacity problems. From mining and steel alone, 1.8 million jobs were shed, and 496 out of 667 steel mills shut down. At the same time, Beijing has been investing expansively on future industries. Xi has been pursuing a China Industry 4.0 Agenda to localize and advance the microchip and electric vehicle sectors.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not budge even when two of the country’s oldest corporate names, Sharp and Mitsubishi, were mired in losses and scandals, putting their future in doubt. He instead paid attention to expanding deregulation zones to promote drones and automated vehicles.
Park is in the most disadvantageous position among the three leaders of Northeast Asia. Xi has the backing of the single Communist Party to fearlessly pursue his agenda. Abe commands a 50 percent approval rating, with an opposition camp that barely even growls. He is expected to become the longest-serving prime minister to head the country.
Park’s party has lost not only its majority in the legislature, it is not even the biggest party in the legislature. Her political battles are about to get exponentially more difficult. Few have any sympathy left for the domineering president. Moreover, the immensely challenging work of restructuring the shipping and shipbuilding industries lies before her.
Experts advise the president to benchmark Germany’s restructuring experiences. Although the Hartz labor market reforms cost Chancellor Gerhard Schröder another term, they were a watershed and transformed a country once dubbed the “sick man of Europe.” Less than a decade later, Germany’s economy is Europe’s pride.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, dubbed the “shadow shogun” for his forcefulness, could be a good model for Park. Although his education stopped at elementary school, Tanaka ascended to become finance minister and led the most dynamic period in Japan’s postwar economic development in the 1960s. He told the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Finance that he would take full responsibility while leaving the real work to the pros in the ministry.
Tanaka, who was also famous for using money in politics, was equally generous to his political rival Takeo Fukuda. When his aides asked him why, he casually said it was such a rival who could end his political career. They would be less ruthless if they had received kickbacks from him, he said. Park desperately needs cooperation from liberal lawmakers and support from the people. Instead of surrounding herself with overly familiar faces, she should turn to some rivals for help.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 16, Page 30
*The author is a senior editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.