Is it really an emergency economic meeting?

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Is it really an emergency economic meeting?

Suh Kyoung-ho
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

On Thursday, President Yoon Suk-yeol presided over his 11th emergency meeting aimed at addressing tough economic and livelihood challenges at his office at Yongsan. Interestingly, the meeting with heads of government ministries was broadcast live to the public — apparently to demonstrate the conservative administration’s resolution to tackle deepening economic woes. The flow of the meeting moderated by Choi Sang-mok, senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, was remarkably smooth, suggesting a meticulous fine-tuning earlier of all agenda items to be discussed by the ministers.

They were divided into two groups: those who simply read a prepared script and those who spoke without a script after digesting what they are supposed to say. Audiences who watched the televised meeting would give more scores to the latter group more than the first.

Now, how many citizens would have noticed that it was the 11th such meeting chaired by the president? In a Cabinet meeting in early July, President Yoon promised to host an emergency meeting each week to take care of people’s livelihood himself. He kept the promise starting with his first meeting on July 8 to announce financial assistance for lower-income households — except for a couple of skips in September from massive typhoon damage and his trips to the UK and the U.S. and excluding October when his People Power Party (PPP) and the Democratic Party (DP) vehemently clashed over the prosecution’s investigation of the DP head on several charges. However, was the public really interested in the emergency meeting hosted by the president?

Presidential events often carry special weight. But if a government minister can replace him sufficiently, why should the president preside over them? The third emergency meeting to deal with jeonse frauds could be chaired by the minister of land and the fifth meeting held at Hanaromart could be covered by the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, not to mention the ninth meeting in the Smart Farm Innovation Valley in Sangju, North Gyeongsang, which could be hosted by the minister of agriculture. I wonder if Yoon wastes time as a head of state.

Former president Lee Myung-bak held emergency economic countermeasures meetings in a bunker since early 2009 shortly after the global financial crisis. Including the national economic countermeasures meetings held after the Wall Street-triggered meltdown subsided, Lee chaired 145 emergency meetings until the end of 2012. In 62 of them, Lee listened to people’s voices from the field. But Yoon likely did not borrow Lee’s methodology. In his memoir, Lee stressed that the biggest purpose of meetings is efficiency and speed of decision-making. When attractive policy ideas come up, he helped ministers make their decision immediately on the spot.

Despite a spate of failed policies, including income-led growth, the Moon Jae-in administration offers some lessons on the role of the president. In August 2018, Moon attended an event at Seoul City Hall on the establishment of an internet bank together with the head of the Financial Services Commission (FSC). He wanted to show his support for the internet-only bank his administration pushed for as a part of its deregulation campaign. Through his attendance, his DP could surmount opposition by core party members.

I sought advice from four former finance ministers about the role of Yoon in such meetings. Their answers were quite convincing. One cited a “lack of leadership” in demanding pain-sharing from all economic actors, including citizens and companies.” Another said, “There is almost nothing the government can do unless it addresses the combative atmosphere with the DP,” adding, “The government cannot move an inch for long-awaited labor and pension reforms without getting a public and legislative consent.” Another urged the government to dispel the market woes in the initial stages by “preemptively providing sufficient liquidity to stabilize the financial market.” The other recommended the president delegate small things to government ministries and handle big things by himself. “What counts most is the president’s willingness to persuade opposition parties. But I can’t see any from the president,” he added.

The president must turn the emergency economic meetings into a venue for “traffic control” of his government with responsibility and prestige. There is a disagreement among the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the FSC and the Bank of Korea over how much the central bank should intervene in the financial market to calm market jitters. I am surprised to see the government broadcast such a laidback meeting live in the face of worsening economic conditions. That will not be what Yoon wanted to see after promising to give government ministers more powers during the campaign.
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