Lessons from Kim Dae-jung
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I recently met a former aide to President Kim Dae-jung, who elaborated on the late liberal leader’s statecraft. Toward the end of the 20th century when South Korea was in dire need of reconciliation, the “DJP union” — between Kim and his prime minister Kim Jong-Pil — reached out to North Korea and built close ties with Japan through the South-U.S. alliance.
Not everybody agreed with mending strained relations with Tokyo. Opening up to Japanese culture was especially met with a fierce backlash. Yet President Kim told his people not to be afraid, saying Korea’s culture was superior to Japan’s for a long time and that the purpose of cultural exchanges lay in restoring ties between the two countries. Kim’s partnership between Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi embodied the reconciliatory zeitgeist and prompted Korea’s cultural content to sweep through Japan in the 2000s, including the K-drama series “Winter Sonata” (2002). As Korea grew more affluent over the years, people were able to purchase rice cookers from the Akihabara section of Tokyo and listen to music on Sony Walkmen. Such changes did not happen too long ago.
In 1998, when Kim came into office, the Korean economy was like a candle flickering in the wind. It had run out of foreign exchange reserves, domestic interest rates were soaring, its five largest commercial banks had shut down and 16 out of 30 conglomerates went out of business. Two million people were left without jobs and new hiring plans were being canceled one after another. But then, a miracle happened. Koreans voluntarily donated their gold jewelry to the government to pay off its foreign-exchange debt, and in just three years, the nation was able to overcome the so-called IMF (International Monetary Fund) financial crisis.
By the time the crisis was over, Kim had two years left in office, but he made every second count. He paved the way for the country’s information technology (IT) revolution by fixing outdated regulations in industry and stimulating investment and entrepreneurship. Regulations were eased to the point of many start-ups beginning to exploit government funds — a testament to the government’s fervent efforts to revive the economy. That paved the way for Korea’s dramatic information and communication technology (ICT) development.
Sadly, President Moon Jae-in has failed in all the ways Kim Dae-jung succeeded. Kim’s aide confided that we have never seen such an administration. “Freedom, markets and security are all collapsing,” he lamented. Moon’s failure in the protection of freedom was proven when a ruling Democratic Party (DP) lawmaker — who served as Moon’s senior secretary of communications — faced accusations about his threatening the freedom of the press. Once freedom is threatened, the government will become almighty and all other types of freedom will be undermined.
Such an oppressive atmosphere directly affects the economy. Manufacturing companies all over the world are returning to their home turfs after the coronavirus pandemic, but in Korea, it is the other way around. Korean companies are moving overseas as the government continues to raise the minimum wage, shorten work hours and introduce antimarket, anticorporate policies like the so-called three bills of business regulation. National security is faring no better, as Seoul-Washington ties are far from what they used to be.
Today’s Korean economy is in better shape than it was during the Kim administration. It has large foreign exchange reserves, a strong semiconductor industry and stable commercial banks and conglomerates. Despite these favorable conditions, we must ponder why the self-employed were struggling even before the pandemic, and why the country’s wage gap continues to deeply widen. The Moon administration’s ideology-based policy experiments are robbing Korea of a precious opportunity to thrive in the so-called fourth industrial revolution. Moon must turn away from his ideology and bring the nation together by choosing aides from both sides of the political aisle. That way, he can escape from the sweet temptation of luring the general public with populist policies like offering a 20,000-won ($17) universal subsidy for telecommunication bills.
Now that Japan has a new prime minister, it is due time that the Moon administration stop pointing fingers at what it calls “pro-Japan collaborators” and rather search for a way to build a flourishing diplomatic relationship of co-prosperity with Japan. With 20 months left in office, President Moon has ample time to change the course of history — and like Kim, he must show the true values of a liberal government.