President Moon Jae-in was quick in accepting the resignation of his economic adviser Kim Hyun-chul last week, after Kim came under fire for his controversial remarks in a lecture to a group of local business executives.
Kim tendered his resignation as soon as he came to work the next day after his remarks sparked public ire, particularly among young and middle-aged job seekers, and Moon accepted it immediately, according to a presidential spokesman.
During the lecture, he urged unemployed people in their 50s and 60s to go to Southeast Asian countries in search of new opportunities instead of going to climb mountains or posting disgruntled comments on social media. He said they should be inspired by the success of Park Hang-seo, the 60-year-old Korean head coach of Vietnam’s national football team.
Kim also urged young job seekers to stop “sitting here” helplessly while calling the country “Hell Joseon,” a term often used to describe how tough Korea can be for youths looking for jobs amid fierce competition. He said he wanted to send a bunch of Korean literature graduates to Indonesia and Thailand to work as Korean language teachers.
He initially tried to contain the backlash at his remarks by saying he was trying to stress the importance of the New Southern Policy pursued by the Moon administration to expand cooperation with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
But he made little of the predicament faced by millions of young and middle-aged out-of-work Koreans by unduly criticizing them for just complaining without doing enough to overcome difficulties. Many unemployed people may feel derided by his lecture.
Kim played a leading role in getting Moon to adopt the income-led growth policy, which critics say has resulted in increasing unemployment and widening income inequality. In this respect, he should have held himself at least partly responsible for more Koreans being unemployed without hope for the future rather than prodding them to move to Southeast Asian countries.
It was only natural that his explanation and apology to those hurt by his remarks did nothing to ease the controversy.
Many people responded by saying, “You go to ASEAN.”
His resignation has been met with sarcastic demands that he set an example by hitting the jackpot in a Southeast Asian nation.
He is unlikely to do so. He will probably return to his previous job of teaching at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies. Or President Moon may assign him to a new post after some time.
The backlash at Kim’s controversial remarks could also weaken or even make a mockery of the Moon government’s ambitious push to expand ties with Southeast Asian countries across the board. Moon plans to visit the region and host a summit with ASEAN leaders here this year.
Kim appears to have undermined the New Southern Policy that he was supposed to promote as head of a presidential committee set up to push the initiative.
Last week’s lecture was not the first time Kim had drawn criticism for comments that many viewed as being detached from reality.
During a seminar in November, he dismissed calls for measures to reinvigorate corporate activity as an attempt to “nip reforms in the bud.” A month later, he refuted the view that the country was being drawn into an economic crisis. But the simultaneous decline in exports, output, investment and consumption in recent months shows that his stance is out of touch with actual economic conditions.
Moon usually appears reluctant to dismiss aides in response to public criticism. However, the president’s swift acceptance of Kim’s resignation seems to reflect worries about the political impact of the former adviser’s controversial remarks.
A poll released late last month showed Moon’s approval ratings have fallen among voters in their 20s, 50s and 60s. In particular, support for Moon among 20-somethings has dropped 26 percentage points over the past year to 49 percent.
Keeping Kim in his post might have undermined the Moon government’s recent efforts to encourage companies to increase investment and employment, in the hope of regaining support from unemployed people.
But Moon needs to go further to shift his economic philosophy and ditch dysfunctional policies.
With the resignation of Kim, the trio of presidential economic aides who advocated the income-led growth policy has stepped down. Last year, Moon replaced Jang Ha-sung, presidential chief of staff for policy, and Hong Jang-pyo, senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, citing the need to step up efforts to reap results from the income-led growth drive rather than change the misguided policy direction.
Now is the time to discard the ill-conceived policy, which has sought to increase household incomes by expanding fiscal spending and imposing heavier burdens on companies, including steep minimum wage hikes. It would be unfortunate, not just for the president but for the nation, if the dysfunctional policy brings no intended outcome until Moon’s last day in office.
Kim Kyung-ho is an editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.