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Not getting through

May 18,2019
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President Moon Jae-in delivers an address at an SME event in Yeouido, western Seoul, on May 14. “When looking at it overall, our economy is moving forward to success,” Moon said. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
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Yi Jung-jae
The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

I wonder whose eyes the president is using to see the outside world. President Moon Jae-in, who was a lawyer before he joined politics, should be capable of commanding reforms of the prosecution with confidence. The former chief of staff of former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun — who arranged Roh’s inter-Korean summit and had three of his own with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last year — is most knowledgeable about North Korean affairs. He may be relatively weak on economic affairs and found himself relying on aides. In his first year, Moon blindly followed the guidance and written works of scholars-turned-Blue House members: policy chief Jang Ha-sung, senior economic secretary Hong Jang-pyo and economic aide Kim Hyun-chul. The president’s ideas would naturally change if his aides changed theirs. So I argued hard against wrong policy judgments and claims of Blue House aides clearly based on cherry-picked data. I sought advice from experts to make my points. I thought my efforts would somehow reach the Blue House.

After two years, I learned that it had all been in vain. I came to realize it was the president all along who was behind the economic policies. Aides tailored their ideas to be in tune with the president’s. When Yoon was recruited from the Finance Ministry to replace Hong as the senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, my hopes rose. But they were soon dashed as Yoon tailored his ideas to the president’s. He agreed that the income-led growth policy was the right direction for the Korean economy. He kept silent on the pace of increases in the minimum wage and also joined the Blue House chorus chanting that Korea’s macroeconomic fundamentals remained strong. The president claims to invite “various opinions.” But his staff has gotten used to a president who remains steadfast to his beliefs to the end. We can hardly expect frankness and outspokenness in the government in such an environment.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times on May 1, James Comey, the former FBI director who was fired by U.S. President Donald Trump, wrote that few sane people can survive Trump as he “eats your soul in small bites.” Ever-talking and imposing himself, Trump “pulls all of those present into a silent circle of assent. … Speaking rapid-fire with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, Mr. Trump makes everyone a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions.” Trump builds with his words “a web of alternative reality and busily [wraps] it around everyone.” Comey had briefly fallen into the web because he did not challenge Trump’s boast about having the largest inauguration crowd. To stay on Trump’s team, one must compromise. “You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitments to value … And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.”

Can President Moon claim to be much different? The difference is that Trump is an incessant talker who does not allow others to talk, whereas Moon listens intently. But words that don’t align with his own thoughts fall on deaf ears. His brain is entirely dominated by North Korea, the so-called past ills, and income-led growth.

Entering his third year in office, Moon has been busy meeting business leaders: SMEs and startups on Jan. 7, big companies on Jan. 15, innovative enterprises on Feb. 7, self-employed and merchants on Feb. 14, foreign companies on March 28, economic veterans on April 3, and social veterans on May 2. He was attentive enough but unwavering in his beliefs. When self-employed businessmen asked for a freeze in the minimum wage, Moon said increases were “the right direction.” When they asked for different minimum wages by industry or region, he was evasive, saying “the policy would be supplemented.” He only nodded when businessmen and veterans pointed out the poor results of his income-led growth policy over the last two years.

This week, the president claimed “the economy was on a successful path.” He must not be just deaf to fellow human beings but blind to data as well. Some criticize the president for feigning to listen to earn public sympathy.

Two years of experimentation is enough. The minimum wage level compared to Korea’s gross national income is now among the highest in the world after gaining 29 percent over the last two years. Yet wealth polarization has deepened, and the lives of the poor have become worse. The jobless rate in April hit the highest level in nearly two decades. When one takes the wrong path, there comes a time when one must admit it and turn back. An economic team that cannot talk straight to a president must be replaced. We cannot have gutless and soulless people behind some of our most important policymaking. But that advice may also be in vain as long as the president remains stubborn. I just hope the president won’t hurt the soul of the rest of the population over the remaining years of his term.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 17, Page 30