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Why is Kim staying?

Oct 19,2018
이미지뷰
이미지뷰
Prime Minister for the Economy and Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon listens to lawmakers’ questions at the National Assembly’s audit of the government at Sejong Government Complex on Thursday. [YONHAP]
Yi Jung-jae
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

I hesitated to write this column in fear of making another enemy. I have put it off for two weeks. But I cannot resist any longer. My topic today is Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy and Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon, who is in charge of our economic affairs.

I have known Kim for years. Kim is someone who thinks national interests are above the law. If there is a conflict between national interests and the law, he would not hesitate to choose the former. He has his reasons. When he was the vice minister at the Ministry of Strategy and Finance in the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration, he formed a task force to study the feasibility of welfare promises the candidates running for legislative seats competitively rolled out ahead of the April 11, 2012 general election. He claimed it was his ministry’s duty to safeguard the national coffers.

That move drew a warning from the National Election Commission, which claimed that the idea of the administration examining campaign platforms was a violation of the concept of neutrality of public offices during elections. But Kim pressed ahead with his study, vowing to take any responsibility. The ministry announced that the welfare campaign promises by candidates in the election could require a whopping 268 trillion won ($238 billion) in extra fiscal spending over the following five years. That sum accounted for over 80 percent of the 2012 fiscal budget of 325.4 trillion won. After the election commission reprimanded the Finance Ministry for breaking the code of neutrality, Kim handed in his resignation as promised.

I bring up this old episode in light of the skirmish between Kim and main opposition Liberty Korea Party Rep. Shim Jae-chul earlier this month over Blue House expenses. While Shim questioned the legality of the Blue House’s spending in bars and over weekends, Kim attacked Shim and his secretaries for their “illicit” access to detailed information on how the presidential office spent money. Contrary to six years ago, he was more concerned about the legal aspect than the national interest.

When the lawmaker continued prodding on the issue of the Blue House expenses, Kim said its spending was no different from what Shim charged on his office credit card over a weekend. He must have meant to say both types of spending should be considered legal. But I was taken aback by his response. Did Kim pore over Shim’s spending in detail? Was he issuing an “I know what you did last weekend” warning? Was his action even legal? Why did he have to go that far to corner Shim? He bickered over the spending issue as if his and the country’s name were on the line.

I can only guess his intentions. Kim does not have a strong base in the liberal administration. He has been more of an outsider from the beginning. He spoke differently with aides in the Blue House and ruling party over the minimum wage hike and increases in the corporate and income tax rates. He was once a hero to critics of the liberal government. Kim and his rival Jang Ha-sung — President Moon Jae-in’s policy chief and the architect of his economic policies, including the controversial income-led growth policy — were rumored to be on the way out for frequent clashes over economic policies. Kim may have chosen Shim as a target to earn the confidence of the liberal administration.

I have long wondered why Kim does not step down. A bureaucrat should walk out if he has to bend his principles. Kim chose to stick it out. He stayed even when his opinions were flatly ignored. In June, Kim Kwang-lim, his former boss at the Finance Ministry, reportedly advised Kim not to resign, but to persist and persuade others until they, including the president, are convinced.

I want to believe Kim is guarding the economy. After his faceoff with Shim, I’m not so sure.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 18, Page 34