The prime minister’s style

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The prime minister’s style

Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Paik Too-chin, Kim Jong-pil, Goh Kun, and Han Duck-soo have all served as prime minister twice. Paik made the youngest finance minister and prime minister and also served as the speaker of the National Assembly twice. Kim was the third in the so-called three-Kims era together with former presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. Goh even ran for president, although his bid failed. Compared to them, Han could be less glamorous as he had not ventured beyond the Cabinet. He has stayed as an economic bureaucrat without a specific political bias.

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s People Power Party (PPP) and the Democratic Party (DP) are fighting over the prosecution’s investigation of DP Chairman Lee Jae-myung and the DP’s demand for an independent investigation on first lady Kim Keon-hee, the wife of President Yoon. As a bureaucratic veteran, Prime Minister Han has been keeping balance in the belligerent environment. He invited former DP head Song Young-gil — who was defeated by ruling party candidate and sitting Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon in the last Seoul mayoral by-election — to the prime ministerial residence along with other DP members.

Han is also hosting a dinner for all members of the National Assembly Environment and Labor Committee. Jeon Hae-cheol who heads the committee happily accepted the invitation. When Han served as prime minister under president Roh Moo-hyun, Jeon was a senior presidential secretary to Roh. The labor minister and environment minister under Yoon also will join the dinner hosted by the prime minister.

The meeting hosted by Prime Minister Han will be a rare gathering of the rivalling parties and the government. Han had arranged a similar informal meeting for members of the Strategy and Finance and Committee of the legislature the previous week, though DP members turned the offer down. The prime minister plans to host dinners for all members of standing committees in the National Assembly.
Prime Minister Han Duk-soo presides over a meeting with related government ministers to prepare for approaching Typhoon Nanmadol in the Government Complex Seoul, September 17. [YONHAP]

Han is capable of the high-level political maneuvering of enticing opposition lawmakers, ironically because he has no political ambition. His engaging tactics should embarrass politicians engrossed in diabolizing opponents, although their primary commitment should be negotiation and compromise for people’s interests.

Han regards regulatory reform as top priority. He shares President Yoon’s commitment to regulatory reforms. Yoon recalled former President Lee Myung-bak’s regret for having failed to see through regulatory reforms that could have helped the economy and not cost tax money. In his first weekly meeting with the prime minister, Yoon stressed deregulation should be synonymous with national progress. In their separate meeting with the president, ministers are required to brief on the progress on regulatory reforms. Deregulation has become the centerpiece of the Yoon administration under the realist president and practical prime minister.

Han ordered all 18 government offices to have regulatory reform task forces. He recruited 100 judges on government regulations from the private sector. Former presidential secretaries on economic affairs Han Yi-hun and Cho Won-dong, former education minister Seo Nam-soo, and former industry minister Kim Jong-gap were among the 33 veterans recruited to advise on deregulation. The idea of placing former bureaucrats who had designed regulations to advise on what regulations to pluck out has been really ingenious. The prime minister is keeping to his promise to “run until his shoe soles wear out.”

A star minister has been born during the process. Environment Minister Han Hwa-jin proposed to adopt the so-called “end-of-pipe” approach rather than intervening in all processes. It is a standard recommended by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to lift barriers for companies in commercializing new technologies and innovations. The idea drew praises from the president and prime minister. If the approach is employed in all regulations, new industries could arise.

But deregulatory efforts pushed by the PPP leadership are deadlocked by politics in kneejerk opposition to anything the government pursues. To them, the heated global competition over technologies and perils of Korean companies do not matter. A Korean of theCHIPs for America Act to defend the supremacy of Korean chipmaking technology has not been able to reach the standing committee for review. The partisan engrossment with selfish interest contrasts with America, where the Congress speedily passed the chip act proposing a spending of $52 billion to promote the U.S. semiconductor industry, as well as the Inflation Reduction Act.

The Yoon administration has been taking a different path from the past ideology-guided government. The current administration is going all out for regulatory reform, to reverse the past harmful policies of income-led growth and nuclear reactor phase-out, and to restore traditional ties with America instead of tilting too much towards North Korea and China. Japan has finally agreed on the first summit with Korea in 33 months after bilateral ties were stalemated since the Supreme Court ruling on wartime forced labor.
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