Touching a sore spot

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Touching a sore spot

Lee Chul-ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.


Next month, Kim Hyun-mee will become the longest-serving minister for land, infrastructure and transport. She beats the record of Jung Jong-hwan, who served 1,187 days under President Lee Myung-bak and spearheaded his signature Four Major Rivers Restoration Project. President Moon Jae-in’s preoccupation with the real estate market is no less than Lee’s fixation with his rivers project. According to a poll by B-Changer, 82.1 percent of respondents “very much approved” of sacking Kim. A mere 2.4 percent did not want to see her go. But Moon keeps the minister who has totally failed with 23 sets — so far — of measures to cool off real estate prices and dampen speculative buying.

Kim’s job was briefly at risk. On July 9, former prime minister and aspiring presidential candidate Lee Nak-yon admitted to the poor results of the government’s real estate policy. “The government should be having thoughts about [replacing] Kim,” he said.

But in a secretariat meeting on the following day, Moon said he had no intention to replace Kim. Blue House staff confirmed the presidential confidence in Kim. Former Prime Minister Lee has not mentioned her since. Current Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun also gave his vote of confidence by commenting that “a commander must not be replaced during a war.”

The president can hardly admit to failures in his government’s real estate policy. A rookie from the main opposition United Future Party (UFP) made an impressive debut on the National Assembly podium during her five-minute speech. “I am a tenant,” Rep. Yun Hee-suk said, becoming a kind of spokesperson for those forced to rent while putting their own houses up for rent. Her conclusion was more pointed. “When making a law that can influence many lives, one must do the utmost.” The National Assembly runs committees to scrutinize bills. “The lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party [DP], who skipped the necessary process, will be remembered as ‘sinners’ in the history of legislation on real estate,” Yun said. Her language was straightforward and devoid of the usual exaggerated comments from politicians. She did not make unrealistic demands such as impeaching government ministers.

Yun spoke common sense. If the state interferes in the market by controlling things like rents, the first people to be hurt will be the weak. The government has bulldozed through double-digit hikes in the minimum wage under its overhyped income-led growth policy. Its blind pursuit of a campaign promise to make the hourly minimum wage 10,000 won ($9) within the five-year presidential term resulted in massive job losses and only deepened income disparities. The three bills on tenants’ rights can cause similar unanticipated consequences of a disastrous sort. If long-term leases are forcibly mandated for four years with rent rises capped at 5 percent, long-term contracts, called jeonse in Korean, will stop. As a result, tenants would have no choice but to live in expensive monthly rental properties.

Rep. Yun’s barbed criticism cut DP lawmakers. They lashed back at her, but the truth always prevails. Reps. Park Beom-kye and Yoon Joon-byeong accused her of feigning to be a tenant as she is a landlord as well. But they brought shame upon themselves as they turned out to be multi-homeowners. Some members even touted monthly rents as the norm in developed economies. They have annoyed 57 percent of the population who do not own their own homes.

A rare civil address from the conservative party stood out from the coarse outbursts of the pointmen of the ruling party. Rep. Yun has employed a catchphrase from former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, who famously said, “When they go low, we go high.”

UFP floor leader Joo Ho-young should learn from the rookie in his party. He attacked the DP and government for dictatorship and accused them of being communist for regarding property ownership as sinful. But his rant irked the DP. Likening DP lawmakers to leftists may work with his support base of rightists, but would be abhorred by centrists. Such rhetoric frames the conservative party as old school and forfeits any chance of pulling centrist conservatives to its side.

There is an old saying, “Celebrate the victory and remember the defeat.” Still in jubilation from its landslide victory in the April 15 parliamentary elections, the DP is recklessly celebrating. The opposition UFP must ruminate on the cause of its stunning defeat and the hype over first-term lawmaker Yun. The UFP cannot rise from the grave by waiting for the government and ruling party to flop. Rallying in the streets and shaving heads or going on hunger strikes are all outdated. The party must promote outspoken lawmakers like Yun who talk in the language of reason. The Moon Jae-in government will listen if the opposition wins over centrists in the capital region. No government can prevail over the market or overrule public sentiment.

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