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Rolling over

I hate to be cynical, but taxpayers’ money is going down the drain with this subsidy.
July 21,2017
이미지뷰
President Moon Jae-in and ministers salute the national flag before holding a second cabinet meeting at the Blue House on June 27. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
The popular belief that bureaucrats are soulless has a double meaning. On the positive side, it means that public officials serve their country with selfless commitment. On the flip side, it suggests they devote themselves thoughtlessly and with no passion or even concern. This can be a matter of perception: Outsiders may view a bureaucrat as “mindless,” while he or she claims to be “selfless.”

Given the innate nature of bureaucratic society, Joo Hyung-hwan, the minister for trade, industry and energy, cannot be blamed for keeping his opinions to himself about President Moon Jae-in’s dramatic plan to wean Korea off nuclear energy. He kept mum during a cabinet meeting that decided to suspend construction of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 power plants on June 27. His lack of assertiveness helped approve the plan in just 20 minutes.

Many wonder why he has suddenly become so reserved. As energy minister in the President Park Geun-hye administration, he declared last September that reactor construction cannot be stopped under local law unless there is an urgent and unquestionable reason. The following month, he flew to the United Arab Emirates for the signing of a landmark deal allowing the state-owned Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Corp. (KHNP) to run four nuclear reactors Korea will construct over the next 60 years, generating 900 billion won ($799 million) a year, or a total of $48 billion. He gloated over the deal as if he was partly to be credited. Those who know him well could not believe he would stay so silent on June 27. But Hong Nam-ki, the minister of government policy coordination, confirmed that the energy minister did not say a thing.

Why hasn’t the president — who claims to be different from his predecessor in terms of communicating with his cabinet members — asked Joo’s opinion? Moon openly asks his aides to speak freely with him in secretariat meetings. But he snubbed the opinion of the minister in charge of a very grave issue: an overhaul of the country’s energy policy. Was he trying not to trouble an outgoing minister who will be replaced by a scholar championing the nuclear phase-out? Or did he outright ignore him?

Or consider Kim Dong-yeon, the deputy prime minister for the economy, who was recruited by the new president. After a tripartite committee of representatives of government, labor and employers reached an agreement to hike the minimum hourly wage by 16.4 percent to 7,530 won next year, Kim announced that the government will offer a subsidy of 3 trillion won next year to small-scale employers for their increases in wage costs. In short, the government is proposing to pay for the wage increases. The swift agreement of employers suggested that they were told of the government’s generosity in advance. The government was experimenting with an unprecedented policy of paying for private-sector labor costs. I hate to be cynical, but taxpayer money is about to go down the drain.

Kim Dong-yeon, who spearheaded the plan, is a veteran budget expert. Given his career, he should prize fiscal integrity above all. He hates to see a cent of public money go to waste. While vice minister for finance under President Lee Myung-bak, he wrote the rosy campaign promises made by presidential candidates. When others warned that doing so could violate the election law — which bans government officials from meddling in elections — he claimed full responsibility. I could barely believe my eyes watching the same man announce a subsidy plan for self-employed businesses.

One traditionalist stood up to the immensely popular president. Lee Kwan-sup, CEO of KHNP, said he would do all he can to prevent a permanent suspension of the construction of the reactors. He said he had gone along with the government’s plan to suspend the construction in order to minimize the losses from a delayed decision.

The former energy vice minister was inaugurated in November, and two more years are left in his term. He must have compromised his position a bit, but did not give up his strong belief that nuclear power is the best practical option for a country that is resource-poor and yet an industrial powerhouse. Keeping silent when you should speak out is not an act of conviction, but an act of selfishness.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 20, Page 26

*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Yi Jung-jae