Standing his ground
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“I aspired to become a public official who appreciates doing service to the country and knows when to retire…I now wish to enter a new chapter in my life as an ordinary citizen,” Kim Dong-yeon, the current deputy prime minister and finance minister, wrote to his acquaintances as he stepped down as the minister for government policy coordination four years ago. Kim, as he explained himself, is not a person who clings to a title. He was the first to offer to resign after the first year under former President Park Geun-hye to facilitate a cabinet reshuffle. Modesty came to him naturally since he was often pushed to peripheral posts at the Finance Ministry. He has learned to bow out when he feels his service is no longer needed. But while in service, he does his best and puts his foot down on issues he feels in earnest.
His work ethic and attitude are written out in the memoir he wrote before he stepped down as the president of Ajou University. In a chapter titled “Civil Resistance,” he said he taught students to speak out “with civility and confidence.” He went on: “Your boss and the organization will never change if you walk away to avoid a hassle or conflict.” He cited the fatal Korean Air crash in Guam that killed 228 of 254 people on board in 1997. Records showed that a lack of communication between the captain and the crew due to a strict hierarchy in the cockpit caused the pilots to misjudge the severe weather conditions that day and miss the landing and crash into a hill.
Kim acted in line with his beliefs by speaking out his mind in a meeting on household income chaired by the president, as data and public opinion turned unfavorably for the Moon Jae-in administration’s signature income-led growth. Presidential staff maintained that the minimum wage hike should not be blamed for the deterioration in employment and business conditions as it was too early to decipher the effect of the increase made from the beginning of the year. Kim disagreed. “It is a common economic theory that when prices [wages] go up, the demand [hiring] weakens.”
He said the government can press on with the income-led growth policy only when it acknowledges the immediate toll on hiring and wages and makes efforts to cushion the shock. He repeated his argument against additional sharp increases in the minimum wage. Income for the bottom-income bracket has decreased because self-employed businesses and shop owners laid off workers they pay by the hourly minimum wage. In the meantime, the income for the top income bracket rose because employers have saved in labor cost by cutting payroll, a trend that shows that the spike in minimum wage kills jobs and labor income for the low-income class.
Kim on Thursday presided a working meeting on income distribution. Jang Ha-sung, the president’s policy chief who had an icy debate with Kim at an earlier income conference, was absent. From the presidential office, Hong Jang-pyo, senior secretary for economic affairs, and Kim Soo-hyun, senior secretary for social affairs, attended the meeting. Kim more or less regained the president’s silent seal as the captain of economic affairs.
Kim may have earned the credence by standing firm against the powerful presidential office. The faith may signal balance in the income-led growth policy. The pillars of the Moon administration’s economic agenda — promotion of growth through increases in income, fairness in the economy and innovation — do not mix. Kim vowed to moderate and balance policies. But contradictory policies are bound to clash. Civil resistance may one day be of no use. If his way does not work, Kim may give up and gracefully bow out. That would be the end of the experiment on income-led growth. I just hope that day doesn’t arrive.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 8, Page 28