No more Mr. Nice Guy

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No more Mr. Nice Guy

South Korea’s inflation was running at 29 percent in 1964 when Chang Ki-young took over as deputy prime minister in charge of economic planning. He promised to fix the problem within six months and immediately formed what would be his crew to prevent the sinking of the Korean ship. He claimed stabilizing prices was as heroic as any movement for unification or independence. A man of hefty size, weighing over 90 kilograms, and known for a hot temperament, Chang was referred to as a bulldozer. In the following year, inflation was pushed down to the 10 percent level.

Kim Hak-ryul, who spearheaded economic planning from 1969, was sharp in mind and tongue. He made insightful and quick judgments. He would lambast staff and even other cabinet members if they didn’t meet his expectations. A former government official recalled that when one of his colleagues could not answer a question Kim posed, he threw a pile of document at him and berated him. The official was so confounded that when he tried to get out of the room as fast as possible, he opened a cabinet instead of the door.

Chang and Kim made enemies due to their aggressive straightforwardness. But Korea’s economy gained a lot from their passionate engagement. There were many economic chiefs in democratic administrations who were equally passionate and devoted. The role was occupied by the top policymakers of our time — Choi Gak-kyu, Kang Kyong-shik, Jin Nyum, Jeon yun-churl, Lee Hun-jai, as well as Lee Kyu-sung, Kang Bong-kyun, Kang Man-soo and Yoon Jeung-hyun under the Lee Myung-bak administration, when the deputy prime minister title was not used. They steered the economy away from dangers whenever it faced them.

President Park Geun-hye revived the deputy prime ministerial title to give more power to the finance and planning minister. Hyun Oh-seok, Choi Kyung-hwan and Yoo Il-ho took that title. But somehow, we feel they didn’t do much with it or their powers. They showed no drive or insightfulness or command over the economy.

Yoo was a scholar-turned-politician. He was accused of trying to build up his career and win votes by accepting the post of Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport last year ahead of the legislative election. He served just eight months and then quit to run in the election. He could not finish his campaign because he was chosen to serve in the deputy prime ministerial post. Yoo, now six months in office, has not been able to shake the image of being gullible and soft. A nice captain serves the crew and passengers well when the ship is sailing on smooth waters. But niceness is not what is demanded of a captain at a time when the economy is in troubled waters.

Yoo has not been able to make a stand on major issues from the beginning. He stepped back as the Bank of Korea protested the idea of quantitative easing to raise funds for corporate restructuring floated by the ruling party during the parliamentary election.

He was at first against state involvement in restructuring the troubled shipping and shipbuilding industries. He said restructuring should be up to the companies themselves and their creditors. He took over the helm from Financial Services Commission chief Yim Jong-yong after he was criticized for keeping a low profile. The restructuring drive stalled as the captain wavered. Industry-wide restructuring should have been spearheaded by the deputy prime minister to orchestrate the roles of various state entities.

Yoo was ambiguous about a supplementary budget as well. He denied the plan and then admitted to its possibility in May. The market moves on comments from the top economic policymaker. He should have made it clear that a supplementary budget was necessary to prevent a further sagging in domestic demand in the process of corporate restructuring. The markets were disappointed by the lack of confidence and responded coolly when the stimulus action was announced.

Yoo sent a senior official from the finance ministry to explain to the legislature the government policy on the low birthrate and Korea’s aging population. The ministry explained that the low birthrate was not part of its purview. But the demographic problem is one of the biggest challenges to Korea’s economy and its future.

The ministry’s top tax official recently resigned because his boss did not bother to arrange a position for him. A talent that wanted to be the assistant minister for tax policy, one of the most powerful offices, may have been wasted because his boss was asleep at the wheel. Yoo must become more harsh, involved and commanding. Challenging times need a challenging leader.

JoongAng Ilbo, August 8, Page 28

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

Koh Hyun-kohn
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