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The Kim dilemma

Dec 09,2019
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Lee Hyun-sang
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

A prime minister in South Korea is more or less a figurehead. Although heading the cabinet in theory, the prime minister is inevitably outweighed by the president in a constitution that bestows most of state governance power onto the elected chief executive. A stronger prime minister has come up time to time in exceptional cases because of political circumstances. All presidents vowed to give more authority to their prime ministers, but that mostly ended in rhetoric.

Still, a prime ministerial post is important as it defines the cabinet. The head can represent the direction of governance. The progressive front has recently become divided over the candidate to the post. The rumored choice of Rep. Kim Jin-pyo of the Democratic Party drew vehement protests from labor unions. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions lambasted Kim for being “an economic bureaucrat with ignorance to labor issues.” It warned that it would stage an anti-government protest if the presidential office makes the nomination. The People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy denounced Kim for being in conflict with the liberal government’s income-led growth policy. More extreme leftist groups even called him a “rightist maniac” and a symbol of past ills.

The Blue House has stalled and is reportedly looking for a more refreshing and reform-minded face for the post. It must have worried about losing its key supporting base if it tries to pass a legislative confirmation by nominating an active lawmaker like Kim, who is hardly a refreshing face. He is 72, backboned in bureaucracy from his lengthy career in the Finance Ministry and has served four terms in the legislature. But the Blue House wanted to field the veteran to make up for its poor economic policy-making reputation.

Kim does not belong to the mainstream liberal lineage. He did not sign a legislative bill aimed at confiscating Choi Soon-sil’s assets that the Democratic Party motioned while she was on trial for power abuse that also implicated former President Park Geun-hye. He refused to go along because of the ambiguity in the definition of “power abuser” and constitutional questions over retroactive application. The bill eventually was killed because legal experts found too many problems with it.

Kim has acted out of sync with his party more than once. He argued for the need to temporarily install tactical nuclear weapons against the North Korean nuclear threat in September 2016. He also opposed the idea of raising corporate taxes, levying taxes on religious figures, a cut in university tuition fees and a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. He often came under attack as an enemy within.

While serving as maritime minister during the Kim Dae-jung administration, former president Roh Moo-hyun had his eyes on Kim Jin-pyo, who was then the assistant minister for budget at the Finance Ministry. Roh seated him as the vice chair for his transition team and praised him as the “best public servant” he had seen.

Kim served as deputy prime minister twice under him. Roh found merits in him different from the activist-turned-politicians. His self-assurance has defied opposition from his supporters to push ahead with an FTA with the United States and dispatch troops to back U.S. engagement in Iraq.

Kim’s resurgence could define the second term of the Moon Jae-in administration. The association of small merchants and other business groups backed him. It is up to the leader to pick the people for his team.

Roh stuck with Kim regardless of some of the opposition against him. If the leader has doubts and not the guts, he should fold the decision. If winning favor with his support base is that important, he must avoid angering them even though it means he would be held hostage by them for good.