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The Peninsula

What President Biden Can Learn from Korea’s Progressives

Published June 16, 2021
Author: Yong Kwon
Category: South Korea

The long 2020 is behind us and expectations for President Joe Biden could not be higher. Many constituents demand that the new U.S. administration fix not only what Mr. Trump damaged during his four years in office but also parts of society that were broken long before the 2016 election. President Biden no doubt realizes that his ability to satisfy these hopes will determine how effectively authoritarian populism will be kept at bay in the years ahead.

But even with the Democratic win in the double runoff Senate races in Georgia, President Biden can anticipate roadblocks to executing a progressive agenda. Here, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration provides an instructive case study of what hurdles the U.S. president might expect and how he might navigate these constraints.

There are many parallels between President Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden. When Moon was swept to power in 2017, he inherited a discredited government. The preceding administration had bungled the public health response to the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and responded unsympathetically to the drowning of 250 school children who were passengers on an improperly-inspected ferry. Revelations that the president was complicit in a scheme to trade influence for cash led to mass demonstrations and finally her impeachment.

Moon came to the presidency with a progressive agenda that set out to simultaneously demonstrate government capacity and address many deep-seated inequities in the country. But entering his final year in office, his accomplishments have been modest. Many variables contributed to this outcome, but three factors stand out: external crises, reliance on outdated policy tools, and inadequate public outreach on the government’s larger aims.

External Crisis: The security threat from North Korea took away time and resources that the new South Korean government needed to advance its public policy aims.

Pyongyang launched multiple missiles and tested a nuclear bomb during Moon’s first year in office. To make matters worse, President Trump responded to these provocations with escalating threats. These reactions only elicited more threats from North Korea, which directly imperiled the security of South Korea.

The Moon administration successfully de-escalated the situation through careful diplomacy, culminating in North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and a summit between the two Korean leaders in April 2018. While successful, the South Korean government expended enormous resources – most notably, the attention of the president and his top advisors – during Moon’s crucial first year in office.

Similarly, Biden already faces several potential crises on the horizon. For instance, the situation on the Ukrainian-Russian border remains tense – albeit a bit less so with the recent withdrawal of Russian troops. The Biden administration must be ready to address this and other potentially urgent crises without committing so much resources that it compromises the momentum to advance critical domestic policy goals.

Reliance on Outdated Policy Tools: When the Moon administration had the chance to look away from the North Korean threat, it enacted bold public policies – but ones that failed to fully address today’s challenges.

Pursuant of Moon’s promise to build a fairer economy for the working class, the South Korean government increased the minimum wage and dedicated public resources to help young jobseekers find work. Moon’s economic advisors believed that the resulting increase in incomes would grow consumption, private investments, and employment.

But these policies failed to take into account that over a third of workers in South Korea were hired on a contract basis. These “irregular” employees earned less than 60% of their full-time colleagues’ wages and received none of the legal protections against arbitrary severance. This central driver of inequality was left largely unaddressed.

The U.S. administration could face similar pitfalls. President Biden promised to support raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour and address challenges facing gig workers. However, California’s recent refusal to recognize rideshare app drivers as employees of the service provider demonstrates roadblocks to extending equal protections and benefits to the growing number of Americans who work in these non-traditional roles.

Moreover, measures to increase wages would be meaningless in an economy that generates fewer total employment opportunities. Top firms in the United States earn increasingly skewed returns vis-a-vis their smaller competitors. This trend has serious consequences for job creation as smaller enterprises employ nearly half of the nation’s workforce. In addition, the steady evolution of automation means that the demand for existing vocations will only decrease going forward. In light of these transformations underway, the Biden administration should look beyond conventional approaches from yesteryears.

Inadequate Public Outreach: When a government develops a new policy, public engagement is a time-consuming but an absolutely essential step in its implementation. Moon overlooked this process and paid dearly.

Setting out to build a greener economy, the South Korean government announced that it would phase out aging coal-burning power plants. And in response to widespread anxiety around nuclear safety following the 2011 accident in Fukushima, the new administration also pledged to decrease the country’s reliance on nuclear power.

These policy choices came with short-term trade-offs. Utility providers managed the high cost of importing substitute fuel sources by relying more heavily on remaining coal operations. Meanwhile, many influential voices criticized the government for stifling the domestic nuclear industry which had recently begun exporting its technology abroad.

Because the government did not sufficiently discuss these compromises with the public, large segments of the population came to believe that the administration did not have a good grasp of the country’s energy needs and interests. As a consequence of this skepticism, Moon’s energy agenda faces greater political scrutiny today.

Biden will face similar headwinds when advancing his own vision of a greener future. During the election, then-candidate Biden attempted to bridge the difference between those who are presently vested in the domestic natural gas industry and advocates of carbon neutrality. The longer he waits to clarify the details of his energy and climate plans, the less trust both constituencies will have in the administration.

The comparison of Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden is not perfect because there are some sizeable differences between South Korea and the United States. Thanks to immigration, the United States does not have to worry about a rapidly ageing population – a looming crisis for South Korea that shapes every discussion on long-term public spending proposals.

Simultaneously, the politicization of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States revealed that extreme political polarization has made governance by either mainstream political parties more challenging than in South Korea. The Senate Republicans’ refusal to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the House Republicans’ removal of Representative Liz Cheney from her leadership position for contradicting former President Trump are additional signs of the political headwinds facing President Biden.

Nonetheless, the enormous financial and human resources that are at the disposal of the U.S. government is undeniable. The Biden administration can deliver a lot of tangible good to the American people if it can avoid the same hazards that peer progressive governments in South Korea and elsewhere have faced.

Yong Kwon is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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