The vice of ‘polifessors’
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Korea’s recent clear, blue sky reminds me of Hawaii. It was 15 years ago when I visited the islands to cover the Korea Forum for Progress on the invitation of the University of Hawaii. For one week, I had the chance to see how a former government official, who was 80-years-old at the time, took control of the forum with his intellectual insight. Other attendees, including Jin Nyum, former deputy prime minister of the economy, and Lee Jong-chan, former head of the National Intelligence Service, all respected and followed his leadership.
There is a building at Sogang University in Mapo District, western Seoul. The Geppert-Nam Duck Woo Hall was established in 2017 in honor of the professor-turned-economic minister. Nam was a professor of economics at Sogang University who later became the finance minister, deputy prime minister for the economy and, eventually, prime minister. In 1969, at 45, Nam was appointed minister of finance by President Park Chung Hee. Nam played a key role in achieving the Miracle on the Han River through rapid economic growth following the 1950-53 Korean War.
Since then, Nam was considered the godfather of the “School of Sogang,” which referred to technocrats from Sogang University who led Korea’s economic development. Prof. Kim Man-je, who served as deputy prime minister in the Chun Doo Hwan administration, and Lee Seung-yoon, who was deputy prime minister in the succeeding Roh Tae-woo administration, were also part of the Sogang School.
Their success stories propelled Korean professors to emerge as an elite group. At a time when college admission rates were low, those who earned doctorate degrees in the United States were considered national treasures. When these academics moved on to work as bureaucrats, the policies they crafted led to astonishing results. Their authority was powerful since they were backed by an even more powerful executive branch. Their brilliant ideas and diverse policies paved the way for the notion that professors can be an excellent choice for key roles in government.
But all that changed with the advent of so-called “polifessors,” or professors who earnestly participate in political activities. Up until the Chun Doo Hwan administration, professors like Kim Man-je were chosen for the government’s top echelons, and they thrived. Their professional knowledge and bureaucrats’ administrative power joined forces to create synergy.
Nevertheless, political parties round up professors during election seasons. When the professors accept the call from political parties, they tend to transform into polifessors. When President Moon Jae-in launched his election team, as many as 1,500 professors flocked to join. Their hunger for power can hardly translate into making the best policies. Late last year, Rep. Choo Kyung-ho of the opposition Liberty Korea Party demanded that four of Moon’s aides in the Blue House — two of them former professors — step down for having crafted the catastrophic “income-led growth” policy. The anti-market, anti-business policy — based on government-pushed drastic wage increases regardless of business owners’ affordability — triggered Korea’s worst employment rate and an ever-widening income gap.
Yet the four Blue House officials showed strong confidence last year by insisting that the employment rate would improve by the end of 2018 — but it didn’t. The eight million households in Korea that make up the bottom 40 percent income earners grew even poorer, and the perceived jobless rate among the young has nearly hit 25 percent. That’s a sad reality.
Nevertheless, the polifessors insist on their way. Instead of taking responsibility for failed economic policy, they are promoted through the revolving-door and propagating the legitimacy of their income-led growth policy. Polifessors can simply leave the Blue House even after advising erroneous prescriptions for the economy. But people still have to live with the pain and sorrow left behind by the polifessors.
JoongAng Sunday, March 23-24, Page 30