Korean political parties shifting policies leftward

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jan 30, 2012 - 16:51
  • Updated : Jan 30, 2012 - 21:13

Whichever party wins the parliamentary election in April, Korea’s new legislature is likely to take a turn to the left on major economic policies.

Preparing for the vote, both ruling and opposition parties are unveiling platforms that include an interventionist approach to ensure fair trade and economic justice, such as more restraints on the country’s family-run conglomerates such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai Motors, locally called chaebol.

On Monday, the ruling Grand National Party finalized its new party charter, ditching its traditional conservative approach on the economy and proclaiming a campaign for “economic democratization.”

“Today is the day we change completely, as we confirm a new party charter,” Rep. Park Geun-hye, the GNP leader, said.

Earlier in the month, she stated the need for measures to curb the concentration of national wealth into a few chaebol families, in an apparent about-face from her pro-business stance about three years ago.

In 2009, she had backed the GNP-led move to abolish a controversial regulation on chabol’s equity investment.

“The repeal of investment cap (on chaebol,) has served to some degree to aid largest shareholders of chaebol to accumulate private wealth,” she said. “We should think of some measures ― not the revival of the rule ― to tackle the problem, for example stricter fair trade rules.”

Traditionally, chaebol reform has been the agenda of the GNP’s liberal foes.

Experts said the GNP, by taking a left turn, aims to shed its image of being a party for the rich and distance itself from incumbent President Lee Myung-bak, whose growth-first policies are criticized for fueling a middle-class squeeze and economic polarization. 
Rep. Park Geun-hye, chairwoman of the ruling Grand National Party’s emergency leadership council, announces the party’s new platform Monday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Lee, the former CEO of a chaebol firm, had pushed for deregulation, tax breaks and privatization of state-owned assets, as part of his drive to turn the country into a more business-friendly place.

On the liberal side, the main opposition Democratic United Party made clear it would push for the revival of the repealed investment cap on chaebol and a new tax on their dividend income.

“From now on, our economy should develop in the direction that ensures coexistence on three realms ― coexistence between chaebol and smaller firms, chaebol and laborers and chaebol and ordinary people,” DUP leader Han Myeong-sook said.

Not surprisingly, the political moves are worrying the local business community.

“Ahead of elections, political parties ― both on the ruling or opposition side ― are jumping on a chaebol-bashing bandwagon,” said Lee Hyun-seok, an executive of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industries. “But such an approach is not helpful to ongoing efforts to boost corporate investment and employment.”

Another pro-business lobby, the Korea Federation of Employers, said: “We cannot but express deep concern about the moves creating a hostile mood toward business groups just because they are chaebol.”

Politicians have often used chaebol-bashing in past elections, trying to show voters that they care for ordinary people more than the rich and privileged.

Koreans have a kind of love-hate relation with chaebol.

While many credit the conglomerates for playing a critical role in pulling the country out of an acute postwar poverty into prosperity, they criticize them for exerting excessive control over the local economy and preying on smaller competitors at the domestic market.

By Lee Sun-young (