Ahn’s ungraceful exit
He directed all the country’s mainstay industries from steel and petrochemical to parts and components as well as overall industrial policy. Upon retiring, he became the vice chairman of the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) and his role was to enhance competitiveness of Korean exports. On paper, he was a typical career bureaucrat.
When he was named the president’s secretary in charge of creating jobs — the top economic agenda of President Moon Jae-in — there were murmurs about the choice. He wasn’t on the election campaign and is not familiar with the public. But to people like me who covered the industrial community for a long time, the appointment raised confidence in the new administration’s eye for detecting the right kind of people for a specific job. It also raised hope for the government’s policy on hiring.
The appointment sparked protests from the two umbrella union groups. The groups opposed to the choice claimed Lee would be pro-employer, as he had served as a vice minister under businessman-turned-president Lee Myung-bak and represented the KITA. But jobs come from employers and the market. Someone well familiar with the industry and companies would be the best person to persuade employers to increase hiring.
But a week after Ahn started work, his appointment was rescinded for reasons that are unclear. The Blue House found fault with Ahn’s fake address in 2003. But the falsification had not been for real estate speculation.
Cancelling an appointment for a secretary position that does not require National Assembly confirmation hearing for that single reason isn’t convincing.
The appointment of Kim Ki-jung, a professor, as deputy head of the National Security Council, also was cancelled about the same time amid protests from women’s rights groups over his behavior. The Blue House said Kim bowed out for personal reasons. Ahn was not given the opportunity for a graceful exit.
Not only aides close to the unions, but bureaucrats from the finance ministry are said to have lobbied to push Ahn out. The latter were displeased with Ahn’s idea of creating a division under him in charge of promoting new growth industries. Finance ministry bureaucrats tend to look down on their counterparts in the industry administration.
It is a pity he had to go. There is no industry expert among policymakers on hiring. The team mostly comprises experts on labor, finance, and tax. The policy on hiring so far has been limited to uninventive ideas of narrowing the gap on wages, shortening working hours, and increasing tax or financial incentives.
A longer-term outline of estimating what industry could most generate jobs and removing stumbling blocks to new industries has been null.
After leaving public office, Ahn devoted himself to the study of investigating new growth models after overcoming structural weaknesses. He met with experts and sought lessons from failures and successes in China and Japan. He wrote a two-part book comparing the economies of Korea, China and Japan. He concluded that the economy and hiring no longer can grow under the model led by chaebol enterprises and laid out specific action plans to foster small and midsize companies. He called for sweeping reforms in the labor sector. His book has been more popular in China and he receives invitations to lecture there.
But bygones are bygones. There are still many key economic posts that must be filled including Ahn’s post. Moon should now look beyond his surroundings and choose someone who is best in the job. A person unfamiliar with the market and used to scorning companies cannot help create decent and lasting jobs.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 9, Page 32
*The author is the head of the Economy Research Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.