Mr. But

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Mr. But


Kim Sang-jo, left, chairman of the Fair Trade Commission, and Kim Dong-yeon, right, deputy prime minister for THE economy and finance minister, talk to each other at a cabinet meeting in the Central Government Complex in Sejong City, on Nov. 28. [YONHAP]

In his days as a university lecturer, Fair Trade Commission chief Kim Sang-jo was known to be a good orator, highly persuasive with his resolute and pithy delivery. He has a habit of refining and augmenting his comments, often by using the transition “but.” Old habits die hard. During parliamentary questioning in October, he used the word “but” multiple times in responding to lawmakers. “There are many complaints that Naver could abuse its predominant position [in the domestic internet industry]. But we are handling this matter vary prudently because it involves an important industry for the future,” he said. On the issue of reforming the family-run chaebol, his own particular obsession — Kim’s nickname is the Chaebol Sniper — he said, “We are working on it [a reform plan]. But we want to pursue the plan in a sustainable and predictable manner so as not to upset the market.”

“But” also comes in handy for Kim to express his true inner thoughts. When asked about how he plans to strengthen the agency’s ability to evaluate the economy, he said, “We plan to recruit four Ph.D holders next year. But I don’t think that’s enough.” When meeting representatives of the country’s top five business groups, Kim said what he really wanted to say after a “but.” “I thank the five business groups for voluntarily acting out ways to promote symbiotic growth with secondary suppliers and business partners. But given what you have pledged to the public and the state agenda, I still have doubts about your voluntary will on reforms,” he said.

Kim told them he would not force reforms through stricter regulations. But the headlines read that the FTC would investigate nonprofit organizations and holding entities of top chaebol. He also stirred controversy by joking to a group he met later that day that he was late because he had to “reprimand” the chaebol.

This oratorical habit has earned Kim another moniker: “But Kim Sang-jo.” I attribute it to the fact that he’s an economist. Economists must reason with equal respects to the cost and convenience and identify the negative aspects along with the positive. Now in a bureaucrat’s seat, “But Kim Sang-jo” may be juggling his longstanding scholarly beliefs and some inconvenient realities. He must fulfill a mission given him by President Moon Jae-in of reforming the chaebol by demanding accountability tantamount to their powers. By doing so he must not undermine the productivity of the chaebol, whose businesses power the Korean economy.

Kim believes chaebol reforms can have a lasting effect on fair competition as well as the commerce, tax, capital market, and financial rules. He nevertheless must contemplate whether large companies can endure a true bombardment of new regulations.

Kim needs to be clearer about the direction he expects from large companies. The business community complains it does not know what the government wants. “It’s up to you,” is the street talk of a bully to get something out a weaker party. Korea Inc. has long been tamed through antitrust instruments. If the government does not know exactly what changes it desires from chaebol, it should stick to the existing regulations to contain and punish companies for unfair practices.

In his inauguration speech, Kim said antitrust rules must uphold free competition, but promised not neglect calls for better protection for the weak. He’s trying to take down two birds flying the opposite directions with one stone. If he attempts the impossible, his reform drive will flop.

Complaints about unfair practices from smaller players have doubled. But progress has been slow because Kim’s staff is overworked. They can’t be sloppy. The job will take longer to be done well. Prioritizing its goals is what the FTC should do first.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 7, Page 32

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Suh Kyoung-ho
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