Gaffes by officials of the Park Geun-Hye administration are emerging as a major issue in South Korean politics. Many of them have been personal, such as the sexual harassment claim lodged against a presidential aid during a trip to the United States. The opposition enjoys touting each instance as a marker that Park is unprepared to be president. But the most politically revelatory misstep for non-Koreans has received little attention so far: Finance Minister Hyun Oh Seok recently commented that Abenomics’ impact on South Korean export competitiveness is a greater danger to the South than the North Korean missile program. This deeply disturbing commentary, from such a high official, deserves to be unpacked for a non-Korean audience for the multiple Korean political dysfunctions it manages to illustrate in just a few sentences. Four points leap out:
First, there is the staggering blitheness toward the North and the threat it represents to the South, the region, and perhaps even North America, not to mention the real victims of its Orwellianism – the North Koreans themselves. Nor is it admitted that the expensive, investor-deterring stand-off with Pyongyang obviously does far more medium- and long-term damage to South Korea’s economy than the ups-and-downs of the foreign exchange market. That North Korea and its rapidly accelerating missile program, which generated a major global crisis just this spring, would be ranked a danger below reduced exports is shocking myopia. Such servility before politically influential exporters is an insult to the South Korean military, the North Koreans suffering such terrible hardship, and to the many foreign states, most obviously the United States, who have pledged to help Seoul against the North. Elsewhere I have argued that South Korea takes the U.S. security guarantee too much for granted, and this is a fine example. It is impossible to imagine a South Korean minister saying something this narrow were Seoul handling North Korean alone. National security shortsightedness that places Samsung’s TV sales over the North’s missile threat is both laughable and terrifying.
Second, there is the unseemly, miserly Japanobia that makes it all but impossible for Korea to work with Japan, despite both shared geopolitical logics and liberal democratic values. Korea’s post-colonial resentment of Japan is well-known and understandable. Japan’s treatment of Korea was harsh and included an effort, not well-known in the West, to eliminate the language and culture as distinct identities. And Japan’s refusal to come clean on the war and its imperial brutality is immoral and infantile. That said, Japanobia is a genuinely irrational and self-defeating paranoia in Korea that is shamelessly manipulated by the government. (I have written extensively about this, for both communities, here.)
Contrary to the minister’s assertion, it is well-known that Abenomics is not, in fact, a beggar-thy-neighbor gimmick, but a desperate, last-ditch, try-anything attempt to revive a systemically important economy stuck in stagnation for a quarter century. This is why just about everyone outside of Asia supports it – the IMF, the U.S., the Economist, the Financial Times, even the Germans. Yes, there is the lurking possibility of competitive devaluation in Abenomics, but the situation in Japan is so dire, that everyone is also willing to give Japan great irregular leeway to try to find any way to get back to growth.