President Roh Moo-hyun
By Kim Yon-se
One of the interesting issues in the coming Dec. 19 presidential election is whether voters will select a candidate who will take up the thread of President Roh Moo-hyun's policies.
Among such potential candidates from the liberal camp, the figure closest to Roh is Chung Dong-young, the presidential nominee of the pro-government United New Democratic Party (UNDP).
But Chung is not favorably placed with his approval rating hovering around the 20 percent mark at present.
Some critics attribute this relatively low approval rating to policy failures of the Roh administration, while others are still loyal, saying the President achieved a lot in various sectors.
The performances cited by proponents include the Oct. 2-4 inter-Korean summit, project for balanced regional development, and the Korea-United States free trade agreement (FTA) _ which is to be reviewed by the National Assembly for yes-or-no vote without amendment.
Among the failures issued by opponents, among those who formerly voted for Roh, are the FTA with the U.S., widened income gap between the have and have-nots, extension of troop stay in Iraq, and high real estate prices.
FTA, Troop Dispatch
Over the past few years, debate has been spreading as progressive observers evaluate the Roh administration.
Korea University professor Choi Jang-jip, who is considered a representative for Korean politics' progressive stream, has charged that Roh is a ``neo-liberalist'' and a failed leader, drawing mixed reactions from progressive circles.
Choi served as a policy advisor for former President Kim Dae-jung and has helped Roh in his presidential campaign.
The professor began lambasting the Roh administration in 2006 when he said in a local newspaper interview that the Participatory Government has failed due to its incompetence and inability to reform.
He raised a possibility that the next administration will be in the hands of the main opposition Grand National Party (GNP) as the pro-government camp has failed to offer distinctive alternatives to the majority of people.
A former supporter of Roh, Sogang University Professor Sohn Ho-churl, most recently joined Professor Choi by condemning the FTA negotiations with the United States as an example of Roh's new liberalism policy.
Calling his administration ``flexible progressive,'' President Roh said he was neither a new liberalist nor a leftist, as the opposition GNP and conservatives claimed.
Roh has said that his administration should not be measured with the doctrine of a system of thought. He also denounced criticisms that he has prevented the progressives any chance of winning the next presidential election.
In a letter, formerly posted on the Cheong Wa Dae web site in the first half of 2007, Roh shot back at progressive critics saying he ``wishes the progressives of Korea can now change.''
``It is regrettable that the government lost the support of the people, and I feel very sorry about it,'' Roh said. ``However, if progressives try to hold my government responsible for their weakening position, it is nonsense.''
One of the examples Roh cited of inflexible progressivism was hostility toward the opening of the Korean market to foreign products.
He said the progressive side has been worried that the nation would tumble down due to the market opening. ``But our economy has developed, making all the openings successful.''
Roh asked the progressives not to disparage his government by mentioning an anonymous scholar (apparently Professor Choi) who shared progressive values with Roh but now attacks the government.
On the Internet portals, debates have been frequent among the former and present supporters of Roh and the pro-government party.
Real Estate Policy
The government has bombed the local real estate market by announcing anti-real estate speculation policies for some 30 times in the past three years, levying heavy taxes, especially on the multiple-housing unit holders.
But it has been under fire for neglecting to provide ``quality'' housing units, especially in Seoul and adjacent areas, which have been strictly banned from development in the past few decades.
Regarding the nation's economy, Roh vowed not to resort to any ``artificial methods'' to rev up the economy, which has caused widespread public animosity against what people call the ``incapable'' government and the shunned governing party.
Critics have also pointed out a lack of consistency in the Roh administration's major policies and unilateral decision-making process.
In contrast to the anti-real estate speculation measures, the government has presented plans for a new administrative town in South Chungcheong Province and another plan to move head offices of 177 public firms to provincial areas by 2012 have contributed to surging real estate prices, experts said.
The government's decision for the troop dispatch to the war-torn Iraq in 2003 and the talks with nine rice exporting countries in 2004 have also stirred backlash from the public and made the governing camp's popularity plunge.
In late 2006, Roh partially admitted his administration's mishap in real estate policies.
``If I have to admit (that if there is) any trial and error in my administration's policies, it would be the real estate policies,'' Roh said during a luncheon meeting with people from Busan, his political hometown. ``But I don't think I have to be cornered in other policy areas.''
He added that the government has been and would be exerting its utmost efforts to make up for the weak points of the real estate policy so that the policy failure would not lead to a crisis in the country's financial system or economy.
But Roh claimed that he has made a lot of achievements in other areas in the past years, though they have been undermined by some news media.
He named the government's efforts for innovation and balanced regional development as well as measures to resolve problems such as an aging society as examples of his achievements.
Balanced Regional Development
Despite argumentative policies of the President, his ``balanced regional development plan'' has been evaluated as one of the best-performing policies.
One of the key election pledges of the incumbent administration was to strengthen provincial economies to help achieve a more balanced national development.
Balanced development has been on the national agenda for the past forty years as excessive concentration of industrial operations and people in the Seoul Metropolitan Area continued to deepen stagnation in the rest of the country.
As soon as Roh took office in early 2003, the Presidential Committee on Balanced National Development was established to work out and implement localized development policies.
Based on the legal grounds provided by the Special Act for Balanced National Development, which took effect in 2004, the government is promoting four key projects: The building of a new Multifunctional Administrative City; relocation of 176 public institutions; forming innovation clusters; and creating what it calls enterprise cities.
The Multifunctional Administrative City, with an expected population of between 300,000 and 500,000 including some 10,000 government employees, will be built in Yeongi-Gongju, some 160 kilometers south of Seoul. The new city will be accessible within two to three hours by car and train from any large city in the country.
Twelve out of the 18 government ministries plus six of the seven ministry-level offices currently in the metropolitan area will be relocated in what is now an agricultural area between Daejeon and Cheongju.
The construction of the new city is scheduled to begin in 2007, and government offices will start moving into the city in 2012.
The government also plans to move 176 public agencies and state-run organizations in and around Seoul to 12 other regions to bolster academic activities by local universities and encourage private companies to seek new homes outside the metropolitan area.
However, despite the fact that balanced national development is an indisputable theme, the government is criticized for heating up real estate speculation with announcements of development plans for the new cities.
The government's compensation for the land required by its balanced development plans is expected to reach 50 trillion won by 2012. A considerable portion of the amount is likely to flow back into the real estate market, pushing up prices.
Businesses also argue that the government's restriction on their expansion of factories in the metropolitan area obstructs national economic development.
The Federation of Korean Industries (FKI) said in a report that every third plant run by a large conglomerate in the greater-Seoul area plans an extension. However, government restrictions are holding off corporate investments worth nearly 5 trillion won.