A time to change
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
It was not typical of President Moon Jae-in when he refused to answer certain questions from the press aboard the presidential plane on Dec. 1 while on his way to New Zealand after the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. Moon refused to answer questions on domestic issues. He was probably occupied with the idea that he was on a diplomatic mission. And yet, the Korean people were very interested in the abrupt replacement of an entire special inspection team at the Blue House and economic issues such as a project to create jobs in the car industry by reducing workers’ salaries in Gwangju.
In fact, his reaction was lamentable. A president is a public servant with many responsibilities. He should answer questions whenever and wherever — as long as the public wants — and he failed to respect that duty.
Of course, it is understandable that he didn’t want to answer those questions. All economic indicators — including growth, employment, investment and consumption — are below expectations. There is no progress in inter-Korean and North-U.S. negotiations to denuclearize North Korea. In the meantime, Moon’s sky high approval ratings have dipped below 50 percent.
There are some rumors that Moon is having a difficult time at the Blue House. When he took the oath of office on May 10, 2017, he vowed to be a president who always communicates with the people. At a New Year’s press conference this year, he adopted a U.S. style for the event by calling on reporters on his own to take questions instead of prearranging them.
It is too early for Moon to be totally disappointed as there are opportunities to turn things around. Moon is receiving credit for having stopped a war on the Korean Peninsula. Yet he must change his policy direction to respect certain realities. When approval ratings go down, persuading the opposition parties and listening to their opinions becomes crucial. If he does that well, he can make more realistic and balanced decisions for the nation.
President Lee Myung-bak was a good example. Just two months into his presidential term, his approval ratings plunged to the 20 percent-level over the anti-U.S. beef demonstrations. Lee resorted to working class-friendly and moderate policies. Although they were against his signature economic policy of neoliberalism, he pushed them forward. He appointed Chung Un-chan — a liberal economist who had been critical of his economic policy — as prime minister. As his approval ratings rebounded to 40 percent, Lee regained the driving force in the government.
President Roh Moo-hyun also transformed into a realist. Despite his core supporters’ anti-Americanism, Roh pushed forward the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, a troop deployment to Iraq and construction of a naval base on Jeju. Roh managed to strengthen the Korea-U.S. alliance and considerably increased Korea’s exports to the United States. “As an individual, I would have opposed such policies. As the president, however, I have to make different decisions,” he said.
Moon must change. The Blue House and the ruling party are slowly making changes. His Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok criticized the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, saying, “It has become a powerful organization that must share a significant amount of social responsibilities.” Rep. Hong Young-pyo, floor leader of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) who used to be a labor activist, agrees with Im’s stance.
DP Chairman Lee Hae-chan is no exception. He refused to meet with members of the National Farmers’ Federation who occupied his office, demanding a hike in the rice price. “You need to study more to become a decent human being,” one of them told Lee. But it was right for him to draw a line. Now, it is Moon’s turn.
One third of Moon’s five-year term has already passed. Any more trials and errors would be a national misfortune. He has done enough to look into the past. It is time for the prosecution to conclude investigations that discouraged conglomerates’ investments. It is time to pay attention to the future and think about how best to survive.
From the ‘60s to 1990, the Korean economy rose on the back of manufacturing. From 1990 until today, we have advanced our manufacturing by digitalizing it and have become prosperous by increasing exports. Now, we need a powerful strategy that will concentrate the country’s capabilities in the fourth industrial revolution, symbolized by artificial intelligence (AI) and big data.
The Chinese Communist Party had a politburo group study session on Oct. 31. After listening to a lecture by one of the best AI experts, President Xi Jinping said there will be enormous synergy when combining the world’s top-class big data and market potential. During the session, it was stressed that there will be an additional 0.8 to 1.4 percent-point rise for annual gross domestic product.
To put an end to the disgrace that it achieved economic growth by destroying the environment, China is making every possible move. Although it assumed a low profile in the trade war against the United States, China showed the determination that it will not give up the right to develop science and technology.
We can do that, too. We must drastically deregulate and support creativity and innovation. From now on, the government must offer what the people want, not just what its supporters want. An industrial strategy that will sustain future generations should be devised and implemented. A marriage of a competitive government and an effective market is the challenge. No government can defeat the people. President Moon is no exception.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 17, Page 35