Yoon’s leadership put to the test

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Yoon’s leadership put to the test

이철호 부장.

이철호 부장.

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

The latest presidential race was peculiar. Campaign platforms that gained public attention were only a few — closing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, including hair loss treatment in national medical coverage or building a shopping complex in Gwangju City. The aftermath has been extraordinary. The defeated party members did not kneel together at Gwanghwamun Square or the National Assembly building steps to humble themselves before the people. They instead sneer at President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol for being elected with a pitifully narrow margin of 0.73 percent.

The hard-liners regret that they had not pushed reforms harder. The proud nature of activists remains. They threatened to make life difficult for the new president as they will still have 172 seats in the 300-member legislature. Rep. Jung Chung-rae even chants “offense is the best defense.”

Although they keep their heads high, democracy movement activists-turned-politicians of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) have received a fatal blow from the latest election. Even their sacred labor value had been scathed. The opposition People Power Party (PPP) attacked the liberal administration for a series of failed real estate policies, which made the tough lives of the people even tougher after housing prices soared. That struck at the heart of the progressive front. Young voters also turned their backs against the DP upon the betrayal from the family favoritism and corruption related to former justice minister Cho Kuk.

The reasoning behind democratization movement also has lost its persuasive power. The progressive front had scorned export-led economic growth in the past as “state-monopolized capitalism.” But during the five-year rule under the liberal president, the government mass-produced public-sector jobs and bombarded people with property-related taxes. It repeatedly resorted to fiscal expansion. Its persistence and determination built through fighting with the past military regimes have made them a greater monster in state control. The habit of impotence and hypocrisy cannot be easily broken.

President-elect Yoon pledged to cooperate with DP lawmakers “with reason.” Cooperation is possible when the more powerful yields. The DP must offer its support for national unity during difficult times. Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, a longtime DP politician, is among candidates floated as the first prime minister under Yoon’s administration. The idea of keeping the prime minister of the liberal government in place is quite a refreshing idea, according to Won Hee-ryong, the planning head at the transition committee. Chae Yi-bae, a member of the DP, also welcomed the idea as it could promote co-governance.

Whether the prime minister will take up the offer is another question altogether. At the year-end, he told his acquaintances how he felt he had been overwhelmingly lucky for having served as the interior minister as well as the prime minister “just for having joined the student demonstrations.” His wife had threatened not to give any support if he should run in elections. His acquaintances are opposed to the idea as Kim could be used to stoke conflict in the opposition. Kim won’t likely agree as long as he is pushed by the DP for cooperative politics.

The society had been bisected during the campaign. If Prime Minister Kim stays on, Korean politics will pass a new inflection point towards unity. The alliance would be even different from the past coalition under the Kim Dae-jung government. Given the seismic ramifications, the rivalling parities must carefully think before making suggestions. The rush of half-baked ideas can make the Yoon’s team look unreliable.

President-elect Yoon also has yet to give enough confidence in his leadership. He has vowed to work for national interests and people. His first phone conversations with heads of the United States and Japan lacked substance. Yoon had not discussed extension of currency swaps with the two key allies. The exchange rate has been volatile amid anticipation of early lifting in U.S. rates due to inflation at a whopping 7 percent and uncertainties from the war in Ukraine. The currency swap with China was rolled over. Another currency swap with Turkey caused a loss of nearly 1 trillion won ($809.4 million) due to the crash of the Turkish currency.

But Korea lacks currency swaps in the major currencies of United States and Japan. The swap agreement had been cut off with Japan due to a diplomatic spat over past issues. The United States retired its swap arrangement with the Bank of Korea in December. President-elect Yoon must address the soured relationship with key allies. The currency swaps are essential in stabilizing the Korean won, which has weakened to almost two-year lows. Despite intervention, the dollar has already neared 1,250 won.
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