Park’s economic scorecardSouth Korea has had 11 presidents. Their top task has been to uphold national security and improve the public livelihood. In other words, their job was to keep the people well and safe. Each president approached those goals in a characteristic way. The founding president Syngman Rhee laid the groundwork for a capitalist economy and the third president, Park Chung Hee, groomed heavy industries to build an export-driven economy. Chun Doo Hwan paved the way for an economy with per capita incomes of $3,000 exactly 30 years ago.
Roh Tae-woo modernized and expanded roads, railways and airport infrastructure to support a growing economy and normalized ties with former communist states. Kim Young-sam advanced the economy by enforcing real-name financial transactions and joined the rich nations club of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Kim Dae-jung pulled the economy out of a humiliating international bailout crisis and helped the country become an ICT powerhouse. Roh Moo-hyun expanded our economic realm through free trade agreements and sought balanced growth across the economy. Lee Myung-bak tried to defend the economy from the U.S.-triggered financial crisis of 2007-2008.
There have been missteps, stumbles and pratfalls along the way. Modernization was achieved along with election irregularities, military dictatorship, financial crises and selfish policies like the four-rivers restoration project. As a result, the economy sometimes expanded in the wrong areas, missed the chance to correct itself and restructure the industrial structure for further advances.
It has not been a perfect process but at least the economy did not backtrack. Our per capita gross domestic product has neared $30,000.
The people worked hard with faith in their presidents. They placed the same confidence in President Park Geun-hye four years ago. Her work was laid out for her. The economy needed retooling to accommodate fast changes in the industrial environment. The 1987 Constitution required some retooling as well to meet changes in the world economy. Inefficiencies and dysfunction had to be removed to reinvigorate an economy weakening under the burden of the demographic challenges of low birth rate and a rapidly aging society and widening gaps across different classes.
But the standard hopes for a new administration were ultimately crushed. Questionable appointments and policies ensued. The president first of all had to make sure the dual administrative capital system worked after vetoing her predecessor’s plan to nullify the plan of creating the new administrative city of Sejong. But she ended up forcing officials to spend more time on the highway between Seoul and Sejong City. There was no central command for economic policy from the beginning.
After four years, Park’s economic scorecard is disastrous. Korea’s mainstream exports have been outstripped by Chinese counterparts.
The number of unemployed exceeded 1 million last year. Nevertheless, Park was complacent in her Aug. 15 Liberation Day address last year. She claimed Korea’s global rank ascended to 11th in 2015 from 14th in 2013 in terms of national gross output and that the economy was ahead of Japan’s in sovereign credit rating. Her sole achievement would have been the promotion of start-ups.
In reality, the Korean economy is in a poorer state than before. Young people compete for contract work or internships because companies are not creating new jobs. Economic growth was stuck in the mid-2 percent range for the third consecutive year. Young people call their country Hell Joseon. Heavy industry — shipbuilding, shipping and steel-making — is crumbling fast.
The southern coastal region has become Korea’s Rust Belt. Korea is being threatened by China in car-making and high-tech products like smartphones.
Of course, the president did not look on with folded arms. She held trade promotion conferences 10 times and promised to remove regulations to pave the way for new industries. But no progress has been made. Bureaucrats stayed complacent and the legislature was uncooperative.
Her decisive fault was a lack of governing capabilities. As the preposterous scandal involving her friend Choi Soon-sil underscored, she had little will or ability to communicate with the public and none at all to inspire them.
The cost of Park’s impotence has been dear. The economy has lost steam and companies became sluggish under the weight of outdated regulations. The credibility of Korea Inc. has fallen as well-known corporate names have been implicated in a bribery scandal with the president and her inner circle.
Alarming signs are everywhere pointing to a sinking Korean economy. But there is no one at the helm. Without political stability, the Korean economy cannot be saved. We just have to pray for a miracle to help the economy somehow survive through this turmoil.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 16, Page 28