Not so keen about action

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Not so keen about action


Kim Kwang-ki
The author, the head of the Economic Research Institute for the JoongAng Ilbo, is an editorial writer.

Being at the center of the action was very important to student activists at the peak of the democracy movement in the 1980s. They were searching for answers to the plights of workers, farmers, free thinkers, intellectuals and the poor. Their ideals were capacious. Kim Soo-hyun, the president’s new policy chief, also fought for the rights of the poor during the passionate days of his youth.

That generation of activists rebelled their entire lives to bring change to society. Today they have the power to do just that given that they occupy most of the key positions in the Moon Jae-in administration.

A government controlled by former activists is determined to institute a policy aimed at improving the livelihoods of the people at the bottom of society, stimulating growth from the bottom-up rather than the longstanding model of prosperity at the top trickling down. They believe in “trickle up” growth.

But many can only shake their heads at this idealistic naivety. Though they understand their noble intentions, many are struggling as a result of reckless policy that no one can back down on, including entrepreneurs, the self-employed and hourly workers — the very people who were supposed to benefit.

The sceptics urge policymakers to come out of their ivory tower government offices and spend some time on the Korean streets to see what’s really happening. To see jobs disappearing despite heavy fiscal spending and much blather about policies that are supposed to be creating jobs. Why do the policymakers in this administration no longer care now that they’re at the center of the action? Maybe it’s different when the action is something you yourself created.


From left: Hong Nam-ki, Kim Soo-hyun

The administration reminds us that the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration failed to see through the reforms it intended because it was fooled by the warning of an economic crisis by businesses and bureaucrats. As a result, they don’t want to listen to businessmen or bureaucrats.

They used to value the hard realities of the streets, but no longer. Now they believe that the pain felt in the process of change will pass in time, and largely affect the affluent.

But some have begun to feel that something has gone terribly wrong upon seeing the worsening jobs numbers.

They are discovering that the disgruntled crowd is not just a pack of Chicken Littles. The administration’s second economic team is now admitting the need for communication with the business sector. Policy Chief Kim said he would meet anyone anywhere to aid the employment situation. Hong Nam-ki, the nominee for posts of finance minister and deputy prime minister for the economy, promised to hold lunch meetings with businessmen every week.

Action is more important than lunch. The policy chief and finance minister do not have to take care of everything. They can have lesser officials do the field work.

They can keep their beloved “income-led growth” slogan, but they must back it up with deregulation and promotions of innovation and jobs. The president’s legislative cooperation remains the key. Hong may be in charge of economic affairs, but it is the president who is at the top. Moon must realize the need to modify his policies and move closer to what businesses say they need, especially on the labor front. Moon is said to be highly reliant on Kim. The policy chief said he would relay various view to the president. Kim is regarded as a flexible person who listens to others.

Some changes have also been sensed in the ruling party. Democratic Party floor leader Hong Yong-pyo vowed to push ahead with bills proposing to double the flextime to a maximum six months from the current three, enabling telemedicine services and the setting up of a joint public-private sector car factory in Gwangju despite strong opposition from unions. Many challenges are ahead. The minimum wage goes up by another 10.9 percent starting this January and the grace period for the enforcement of the 52-hour workweek ends at the end of the year.

Troubles with small and mid-sized companies will build. The weakening of traditional manufacturers like automakers will lead to chain bankruptcies in the supply chain. The external front doesn’t look good.

The new navigators may be too busy steering the ship to care about reforms: that would be a mistake — they must communicate with the business sector to ensure they are on the right path.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 14, Page 27
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