[Column] From top to bottom as usual

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[Column] From top to bottom as usual

Suh Kyoung-ho

The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

“It was a ‘private government’ that made the official organizations and systems of the government inoperable. The president’s party and the rival party were divided into the Blue House guards and the attack team against the president and repeated a state of unproductive agitation in a battle without politics,” wrote Park Sang-hoon, a political scientist, in his book, “The Blue House government,” published in 2018, the second year of the Moon Jae-in administration.

The Blue House government mentioned in this book refers to an arbitrary governing system in which the president concentrates all powers to the Blue House, an arbitrary organization that aides the president. “An ‘uncontrollable, powerful Blue House’ is an irony that cannot coexist with a ‘democratic, responsible government’,” Park wrote. The Blue House government has just changed its title to the Yongsan Presidential Office government and nothing has changed.

The abnormality of the current administration was revealed when the cabinet and the presidential office bickered about a plan to revamp the 52-hour workweek in June last year. Just one day after the minister of employment and labor announced a reform plan, President Yoon Suk Yeol denied it by saying it was not the government’s official position. It was more than a miscommunication between the presidential office and the labor ministry. Since then, all ministries likely paid special attention to reporting to the presidential office. Yoon’s promise to run the country with responsible ministers at the center became empty words.

One incident would be a mistake, but if it is repeated, that means the governing system has problems. In July, the Ministry of Economy and Finance announced a tax reform program, which included a plan to increase the tax credit rate for investments in semiconductor facilities, including battery and other strategic industries, to 8 percent from the current 6 percent. It must have been reported to the presidential office.

The finance ministry persuaded major political parties that demanded a higher increase in the tax credit, and the bill was passed at the end of last year. In the face of criticisms for a mediocre rate hike, the ministry issued a press release that the current tax credit rate for investments in R&D is the highest in the world and the level of tax credits for facility investments is also comparable to competing countries (The press release is still available on the website of the ministry).

But after a scolding from the president, the finance ministry reversed its position. All of a sudden, the ministry has become a narrow-minded bureaucratic organization that only cares about tax revenue without any strategic mindset to serve the country. 
President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks before a meeting with ministers of health and welfare, employment and labor, gender equality and family, and the commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, Jan. 9, at the guest house of the Blue House. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE]

Taking into account the increasingly fierce global competition and the slow semiconductor market, it is necessary to support the chip industry. But is it really acceptable for the ministry to suddenly change its position just because the president issued a single criticism?

From the perspectives of chipmakers, securing factory sites and infrastructure, such as electricity and water, are as important as tax since they are struggling to find the best timing for investment. It is widely known that Samsung Electronics and SK hynix had suffered extreme hardships to secure electricity and water after they purchased land. The government must look at the business environment, too, when it looks into the tax issues.

It was also disgusting that the presidential office openly refuted Na Kyung-won, vice chairwoman of the Presidential Committee on Aging Society and Population Policy, after she floated the idea of writing off debts from loans for couples with newborn children. Various ideas can be considered in a government committee. The media also did not pay particular attention to the idea. In fact, the issue became more prominent after the presidential office refuted it the next day.

The presidential office criticized Na for speaking recklessly about an expensive policy which is different from the government’s official position. But it must not be just about money. The Yoon administration spent 23 trillion won ($18.5 billion) — the highest ever — to compensate losses of small merchants through a supplementary budget last year. Observers said the criticism was based on Yoon’s negative opinion toward Na’s plan to run for the chairmanship of his party.

It is a “Yongsan Presidential Office Government” that abruptly overturns an official policy just to serve the intention of the president. There is no better description. We don’t see any active ministers except for a few, including Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon. Public servants are just refraining from coming forward because of this government’s characteristics.

Pundits say that as Yoon, a political rookie, is only prompting his own politics, we do not see true politics, a mechanism for resolving conflicts democratically. Political scientist Park wrote in his book that the biggest harm caused by the “Blue House government” of Moon was that only active supporters and aggressive opponents speak their voices. And that is exactly what we are seeing now.
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