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Economic leadership needed

Dec 20,2019
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President Moon Jae-in and former National Assembly speaker Chung Sye-kyun talk before Moon makes a speech at the legislature on Nov. 1, 2017. Moon nominated Chung for prime minister Tuesday. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
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Kim Dong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The liberal talent pool is running low. The presidential office has been on a search for a replacement for Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon for more than a month. At the end of the day, it decided on former National Assembly speaker Chung Sye-kyun. Why all the fuss makes one wonder. If he had been serious about placing an economic expert as the head of the cabinet, President Moon Jae-in should have pressed ahead with his initial choice, Rep. Kim Jin-pyo of the Democratic Party, a two-time deputy prime minister for the economy. Moon gave up on Kim due to strong opposition from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) citing his past labor platform. How long will state policy stay under the sway of a union group that represents a mere 2 percent of the 50 million people?

Yet Moon partly stuck to his original plan of seating an expert on the economy as prime minister. Korea must place the economy as the top state priority for several reasons. First of all, the economy is on a cliff. It has never performed so poorly — 2.0 percent in annualized growth at best this year after 2.7 percent growth in 2018 — since the crisis-hit years. But the president claimed the economy has been going in the right direction and lately was sanguine about “positive changes” in the economy. With such a blinded leader and aides in the presidential office, the cabinet at least needs a sober head on the economy.

Second, the candidate should be seasoned in policy and business. Chung was with SsangYong Group for most of his young days and also served as the trade and industry minister.

Third, the leftist government needs more “balance” in economic perspective. The KCTU and some civic groups opposed the choice of Kim because he cut corporate taxes and embarked on the negotiation for an FTA with the United States when he was the deputy prime minister for the economy under former liberal president Roh Moo-hyun. But the policy moves were made out of practical judgment. As the industry minister, Chung also manifested balanced policy decisions and leadership.

Fourth, the Moon administration also requires more evenness in appointments. Recruitment entirely came from the inner circle or progressive sources with little regard for expertise, experience or ability. The only credentials were election experience, commitment to the left-leaning ideology or membership in the ruling party. Although Chung is from the DP, he cannot be entirely considered a leftist.

Fifth, the government must stop policy experiments and seek stability in governance now that it has entered the latter half of the five-year term of Moon. Its policy to raise the hourly minimum wage to 10,000 won ($8.60) within the first two years was stopped after it caused massive job losses for low-income individuals and widened disparities in wealth. When conflict led to Tokyo’s retaliatory export curbs on key materials necessary for chip and display production, the foreign minister vowed to take revenge and the presidential policy chief called upon the people to rise against Japan. The government needs a stable figure in public policy.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration, known for economic failures, now seems relatively good when compared with the impotence of the Moon administration. Unlike Moon — who served as Roh’s chief of staff — his former boss was more level-headed in recruitment. Roh bent his principles and appointed people for top posts in the government through an even broader pool.

Chung must prove different from other prime ministers who mostly were content with their figurehead roles. He must prove that broad cynicism about a former head of the legislature settling for the No. 2 seat in the administration is wrong.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 18, Page 34