‘I am rooting for you’
The author is the senior editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
On the 10th anniversary of the death of former President Roh Moo-hyun, it is interesting to consider what he might think were he still alive. Roh was always optimistic about history and life, which made his tragic end ironic. Based on his writings, records kept by his former chief personal secretary, Yoon Tae-young, and my own memories of covering him in the past, I offer a fictional interview from beyond the grave. The answers are edited versions of actual statements from his life.
A. Whether one is liberal or conservative, isn’t it all about making a living at the end of the day? It is a measure of progress in history that ordinary people can enjoy what only kings could in the past. I’ve talked about pragmatic liberalism. The clear difference is assertiveness on distribution and welfare. Between distribution by the market and distribution by the state, the difficult question is how far the government should intervene in distribution in the market.
What do you think about the Moon Jae-in administration’s anti-market policy?
One of the notable cases in my administration was the ruling party’s disclosure of original unit costs of apartments. I initially opposed it. In business, there are profits and losses. Unless there is a clear violation, it goes against the principle of business to disclose original costs as long as companies move according to business principles.
Wasn’t that policy a compromise?
It was not because of pressure from the construction industry nor was it a regression of reform. Disclosure of costs is not a reform. Market mechanisms should exist. When I became president, I thought I would succeed, but glory is short and pain is long. The leader needs to say what’s right and what’s wrong.
You also opposed the wealth tax.
How many reforms can the government accomplish? If you push for something like a wealth tax and it meets with resistance, you cannot pursue necessary reforms. It is hard to do or agree with all the demands. It is most important that reform take place in universally needed areas based on a social consensus.
What do you think about the liberals today?
Those who served prison terms and have moral authority want to play their role. Yet they have reached limits in the era of consensus beyond the era of resistance. We need to prepare a new value system to lead and rule the next generation beyond the old anti-dictatorship slogans against individuals and powers.
Please give your advice on our struggling economy.
While transparency is still an issue, the market is becoming more transparent and fairer. It is evident that companies are reforming themselves. But there is a limit to capital input-oriented growth, so innovation-driven growth should be pursued. The core is ratcheting up corporate competitiveness through technological innovation and nurturing of a talented workforce. Those who disliked inherited management do not like conglomerates. Yet did all companies with inherited managements fail and all companies with professional managements succeed? Resolving a distribution gap is important, but there is no reason to burden the economy with welfare spending. Economic improvement does not mean resolving all hardships. The real solution can be found in addressing income polarization.
What about the revision of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which was made during your administration?
The FTA is not an ideological issue but about how we make a living. Opening is not a matter of conservatism or liberalism — it is the trend. Korea needs to become an open trade country. For the liberal reformists to lead political society, they need to change their understanding of opening and accept the trend of history.
You felt strongly about a grand coalition, didn’t you?
During the Kagoshima meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in December 2004, I suffered a cerebral infarction because of overwork. I used to smoke more than a pack of cigarettes per day, but I quit. As the ruling party became a minority in the by-election in the following year, I started to smoke again as I contemplated a grand coalition. Two months later, 11 people from the ruling party and the Blue House had a meeting, including Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan, party chairman Moon Hee-sang and Secretary for Civil Affairs Moon Jae-in, and I smoked six cigarettes as I advocated the grand coalition.
People raised suspicions about your idea of sharing power.
You know the netherworld only after you die. But it is not that you only grasp it when you lose the next election. As our political parties tend to take sides, it is unimaginable for an opposition party to help the ruling party. A responsible prime minister can come from the majority, opposition or a party coalition. The president can take a step back and share his power with the legislature to make things work.
But that is not possible in reality, is it?
Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan, a close friend of mine, said that even a small coalition was impossible. But if you look at individual lawmakers, there is room for integration in many ways. If you can convince them, it is right to run the government based on a cabinet system. Why can’t the ruling Democratic Party and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party have a joint meeting over major policies?
What would you like to tell the people?
Politics is noisy by nature. Please scold the politicians and tell them to talk and cooperate. It may be a hard time, but I believe the Korean people can overcome challenges as we have the best passion for education, knowledge and technological level and enthusiasm. I believe in you. Cheer up. I am rooting for you.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 23, Page 31