The author is a columnist at the JoongAng llbo.
In a rare convocation of senior members of the ruling party, government and Blue House on Saturday, newly-elected head of the Democratic Party (DP) Lee Hae-chan vowed to bring about a landslide victory in the next general election to guarantee an extension of the liberal government beyond President Moon Jae-in’s term. The meeting was arranged to share wisdom on combating various challenges to society and the economy.
It was curious to hear a ruling party head talking of such issues when the president is in his second year. The next general election is 20 months away. Lee’s hoopla has already gotten attention of scramblers in the party, government, and Blue House. Moon’s lame-duck period could be accelerated.
In a meeting of DP members on the previous day, DP floor-leader Hong Young-pyo, who served as Lee’s secretary when the latter was prime minister under President Roh Moo-hyun, went so far as to call on his peers to be ready for a “fierce battle” with the conservatives over the liberal government’s key income-led growth and nuclear reactor phase-out policies in the upcoming National Assembly session.
It’s a pity that the ruling party’s commander perceives criticism of the government’s income-led growth and nuclear reactor phase-out policies as an ideological challenge from the conservatives instead of a reasonable questioning of the ramifications of those policies on the economy and the country’s future. It is a habit of the liberals to perceive challenges through the prism of ideology. We hoped they would have kicked that habit by now, but they haven’t.
Still, there are some signs of hope from the President Moon Jae-in. He sacked Paik Un-gyu as the industry, trade, and energy minister. Paik was a former professor of energy engineering who led Moon’s campaign to wean the country off coal- and nuclear-fueled power. The phase-out policy has stripped the country of a lucrative chance to export its nuclear reactor technology to the United Kingdom. Paik had preached against nuclear reactors as if doing so made him a true liberal. Replacing him with a career industry bureaucrat should help the ministry return to its purpose of promoting industry and energy for national interests. The new minister, Sung Yun-mo, said he would do his utmost to strengthen industrial competiveness through innovation.
Moon should be aware that industrial activity and innovation-led growth must be backed by stable and affordable electricity. The president has been promising liberalization in telemedicine, internet banking and big data. All the industries defining the fourth industrial revolution require power and cannot be sustained by expensive renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. Due to reductions in nuclear reactor operations, power is being generated more from coal- and gas-fueled plants. Those imported fuels are much more expensive than nuclear-generated power and emit toxic pollutants like fine dust. Phasing out nuclear reactors could impede Korea’s transition into the fourth industrial revolution.
According to the Korea Energy Economics Institute, as many as 10,000 jobs would be lost in the nuclear reactor industry by 2030. Without skilled engineers, the safety of active reactors cannot be ensured. The government has been arguing for the need to phase out nuclear reactors to free the country from any nuclear-related dangers. It must discard that plan if it actually puts the public at greater risk. Moon must not be persuaded by his aides that easing up on the phase-out policy would be giving into conservatives. Kim Soo-hyun, senior presidential secretary on social affairs, is the top commander in the phase-out campaign. Why does a person whose primary focus is the environment and real estate meddle in the nation’s energy industry? The new minister must be able to talk straight to the president, not take orders from his secretary. He must fight the ridiculous argument that the phasing out of reactors does not affect our power output, electricity bills or exports of reactor technology.