Realigning priorities

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Realigning priorities


Seo Kyung-ho
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

In September, Sports giant Nike launched a 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign on television with a controversial face — former American football player Colin Kaepernick, famous for irking National Football League owners and conservative Americans as well as U.S. President Donald Trump for starting the “take a knee” protests. The protests are meant to denounce injustices in American society such as police brutality.

The ad features a close-up photograph of the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s face with a message saying, “Believe in something, even it means sacrificing everything.” The player became a symbol of a new black movement by “kneeing” out “The Star-Spangled Banner” during games in the 2016 NFL season.

U.S. President Donald Trump blasted Nike for the “terrible” message it was sending, but nevertheless conceded that Nike has the right to feature anyone in its advertisements. The White House was clearly unhappy about it. But we don’t see the sport gear company in any trouble with authorities such as getting unwanted visits from tax authorities.

The first-generation of South Korean tycoons had a boldness that would be unimaginable to see in their sons and grandsons now in charge of their business groups. In October 1990, President Roh Tae-woo invited the chairmen of top business groups to a meeting. After they had some drinks, Cho Choong-hoon, founder of Hanjin Group and Korean Air Lines, spoke up. “The economy is being wrecked because policies are drawn up by scholars who know little about real life and real business,” he said, bringing chagrin to the faces of Roh Jai-bong, Roh’s chief of staff, and Kim Chong-in, senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, who were at the get-together.

Some outright lauded Roh’s predecessors. Chung Ju-yung of Hyundai Group paid tribute to both the late strongman Park Chung Hee and general-turned-president Chun Doo Hwan. Koo Ja-kyung, founder of LG Group, said the government’s restrictions on their non-commercial properties were blocking corporate facilities investment. “That’s dictatorship,” he said.


That ticked Roh off. “Are you calling me a dictator?” he shouted and stormed out of the room.

Believe it or not, there was a time when entrepreneurs spoke frankly to the president. None of them faced any kind of punitive reaction. They might have paid their dues somehow as those were days when collusion between industrialists and bureaucrats was common. I am not saying we should return to the ways of the past. But even in those days of vigorous state meddling and less democracy, the government and the corporate sector communicated.

Last week, I interviewed Byeon Yang-ho, the unfortunate former finance ministry official who was publicly lambasted and kicked out of the government for the selling of the Korea Exchange Bank to U.S. private equity firm Lone Star Funds. He observed that our economy is withering because the government supplies the priming water but doesn’t do any pumping. He proposes packaged deals through bipartisan efforts. All businesses operating in other countries should be allowed in Korea through liberalization, he argued. “The government should be less obsessed with the wording of ‘income-led growth’ and instead continue endeavors to reinforce welfare and the social safety net,” he said. In the same context, outgoing Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy Kim Dong-yeon pointed out that a lack of political will on economic policy was making our economy suffer.

Byeon also stressed the principle of equality before the law. Aggressive investigations by the prosecution and other authorities has dampened the private sector’s investment spirit. Business leaders were forced to accompany the president on his visit to Pyongyang whether they liked it or not. Companies should be free and bold in their activities as long as they abide by the law and principles. Korea Inc. should have rebels like Nike or Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.

I am not saying the government should go softer on conglomerates or stop expanding social welfare. Those ignoring the market order should be punished and welfare should be reinforced to facilitate structural reforms. But an excess always backfires. Given a slew of laws and demands the government has made over the last 18 months — revisions to the commerce and fair trade acts, minimum wage hikes, a 52-hour workweek, increases in full-time workers, and greater profit-sharing, to name a few — it is no wonder that capital investment is at the worst level since the 1997-98 foreign exchange crisis.

Observing the Moon Jae-in administration’s economic policies, a former economic minister said the government was like a golfer who misses because of too much strain on the body. The government must rearrange its priorities over business and welfare policies.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 9, Page
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