Stumbles and fumblesEven a skillful cat does its best to catch a mouse. A weak animal can turn exceptionally strong in the face of a nemesis. The Moon Jae-in government, which tried to scare and stomp out the speculative forces behind cryptocurrencies, ended up provoking a wasp nest. The people in their 20s and 30s who make up the bulk of 3 million cryptocurrency investors trading as much as 6 trillion won ($5.7 billion) a day were a key voting bloc for the liberal president. They bombarded a public petition on the Blue House website after Justice Minister Park Sang-ki caused havoc in the trade with a warning Thursday that his ministry was pursuing a special law to shut down cryptocurrency exchanges.
Their petition opposing a ban on cryptocurrency transactions asked the government if it had really thought about their happiness. It collected over 170,000 online signatures as of Sunday. Some vented that they now hate themselves for having cast a vote for Moon who “runs a dumb and irresponsible administration.” Fearful of having upset its biggest voting base, a Blue House spokesman issued a denial seven hours after the minister’s unexpected comment, saying the plan was not final.
The craze over bitcoin and other virtual currencies sent their prices 30 percent higher in the Korean market than in others. It has exposed some underlying problems of Korean society. Members of the young generation who are going nowhere — no matter how hard they try — have become obsessed with the virtual currency on the gamble that it will one day bring them decent wealth or even make them millionaires. The fad has gone beyond office workers and even reached high school classrooms. The justice minister said the government must step in or risk catastrophic damage to people when the bubble bursts.
Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy Kim Dong-yeon took a prudent approach. He said many believe that cryptocurrency will become a financial tool in the fourth industrial revolution along with automation and digitalization. “We should have a balanced view as the underlying blockchain technology is closely connected with the industrial, security and logistics sector,” he said. In fact, cryptocurrencies are being traded as legitimate financial instruments in two major markets: the United States and Japan.
Before the justice ministry jumped to its conclusion, it should have coordinated with other government offices like the Ministry of Finance, the Financial Services Commission and the Ministry of Science and ICT. Then it would not have caused such a shock if it sought to strengthen the related infrastructure by ensuring transparency in the trade while removing some excess froth.
The government has made fumbles in other areas, too. The Education Ministry last month caused an uproar among parents by announcing it will ban after-school English classes in kindergartens and preschools across the nation. It retracted the plan after it was met with protests from parents complaining of extra tutoring costs if English classes are banned in preschools. Parents would have to send their kids to private English academies that cost 300,000 to 400,000 won a month if their children could not get English lessons at preschools. Bureaucrats irked parents by making policies that were out of tune with reality.
To meet a presidential campaign promise, families will get 100,000 won a month in childcare allowances for every child aged five and under from September. The National Assembly approved the plan on the condition that the payouts were not give to households in the upper 10-percent income bracket. But the welfare minister ignored the agreement and said the every household would get the allowances. Even the ruling party’s floor leader criticized the government for ignoring the legislature.
One of the biggest controversies has been Moon’s vow to raise the hourly minimum wage to 10,000 won by 2020. Small workplaces and shop owners are struggling after the minimum wage jumped 16.4 percent to 7,530 won this year. Precarious employment as security guards and cleaning and other part-time jobs are quickly disappearing. The deputy prime minister urged employers not to lay off employees, but he cannot stop them. Even Uh Soo-bong, chairman of the Minimum Wage Commission, is asking the government to rethink pushing the wage floor to 10,000 won.
The government has flopped many times on the external front as well. Soon after he was elected president, Moon said he would re-consider deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system although the equipment had already arrived. The administration’s frequent flip-flops on Thaad irked both Washington and Beijing. Seoul also formed a task force to revisit the Park Geun-hye administration’s 2015 deal with Japan to close the chapter on the thorny sex slave issue. Even after the re-examination exposed behind-the-scene — and questionable — dealings regarding the pact, the government said it wasn’t pursuing a renegotiation. It was an irresponsible move that upset the victims and Tokyo equally. As a result, the Japanese prime minister will most likely give a pass to attending the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
The government is not a test bed for the ruling power’s eagerness. Its stumbles in the first eight months could be partly forgiven as the president’s administration was formed without any transition period due to the impeachment and removal of the former president and a snap election. As the government enters its second year, however, it must keep close watch on its indulgences and complacency as it can hardly be stopped by a weak opposition. Voters can turn away if the administration pursues more half-baked ideas like the aborted ban on cryptocurrency trading. If it keeps such self-righteous attitudes, the Moon administration’s 70 percent approval rating won’t last very long.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 15, Page 31
*The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.