Will Obama be reelected?

By Jay Kim

Six months remain until the U.S. presidential election. Historically in U.S. politics, incumbent presidents running for reelection are without challengers from inside their parties. With President Obama as the sole candidate, the Democratic Party has accumulated plenty of campaign funds for him while watching the Republican candidates battle it out for nomination. Although it may seem an incumbent president has a much higher probability of winning than his opponent, it is not always the case. Only 13 out of the past 43 U.S. presidents were reelected, around just 30 percent.

Will President Obama be reelected? Most Koreans want this to happen, because he has been the friendliest president to Korea in U.S. history. Since I am a Republican, I want the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, to win. However, as a Korean, I do not dislike Obama, who thinks highly of Korea. For Korea’s sake, it may be better for Obama to win the election and stay in the White House for four more years.

Unfortunately, there are significant political obstacles in Obama’s path. The first of them is his lukewarm attitude toward North Korea. He has failed to show determination and leadership in handling North Korea, being too concerned about China’s reactions. The Republican Party considers North Korea’s missile launch, in defiance of continuous strong warnings from the U.S., as a direct challenge to Obama. A few days ago, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a presidential statement that strongly condemned North Korea for launching the long distance missile. The statement also expressed that stronger measures will follow additional provocations from North Korea.

The Security Council always issues such presidential statements. A statement ― without enforcement ― was issued again this time. With China protecting North Korea, issuing a warning seems to be the apex of the Security Council’s action against North Korea, as it has been in the past. The Republican Party is dissatisfied with Obama’s lukewarm attitude. A stronger measure is needed this time, such as taking away China’s veto power through a reform of the U.N. Security Council.

The second obstacle is the General Service Administration (GSA) scandal. GSA, which has 13,000 employees and a budget of $21 billion, spent $823,000 on its convention in Las Vegas. Dining expenses for the event were $146,527, which greatly exceeded the allowed cost of $30 per person. The administrator resigned amid criticism of wasting taxpayer dollars, and a congressional hearing will be held soon. It is interesting that Democratic Senator Durbin was the one who dug this out, and from the Republican Party, Representative John Mica, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, took on the hearing. The Republican Party will continue this hearing until the presidential election and use it to prevent Obama’s reelection.

The third obstacle is the federal budget, specifically, the debt ceiling. A full offensive from the Republican Party is expected, to be led by Romney this time. This was a difficult issue for Obama last year, a non-election year, but will be considerably weightier this year. This is because while about 60 Democratic lawmakers voted with Republicans on the budget last year, more of them show signs of joining Republicans on this issue as the federal deficit continues to grow. This will be testing trouble for Obama.

Finally, the fourth obstacle is the U.S. economy. The administration claims that the economy is getting better, but economic indexes show otherwise. In 2012, the U.S. economy is expected to grow by 2 percent, with the unemployment rate at 8 percent while the real estate market is still in recession. Furthermore, inflation rate will be at about 2 percent. It is questionable whether or not the nation will be satisfied with these statistics.

It is no exaggeration to say that the U.S. presidential election is determined by the economy. Clinton won a presidential election with the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.” In this respect, this election won’t be an easy game for Obama. The Buffett Rule that Obama is pushing hard will cause intense controversy. Most Republican lawmakers think that the taxes raised from the Buffett Rule targets people who became rich through hard work. Obama’s road to reelection can only be extremely rough.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).



Is N. Korea really intervening in elections here?

By Jay Kim
This year, North Korea celebrates the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth. For this reason, North Korea declared 2012 as the first year of building a “strong and prosperous nation,” and it has been carrying out propaganda on a massive scale. For North Korea, a “strong and prosperous nation” means a nation of strong military might and economic prosperity. However, North Korea suffered a recent embarrassment when the recent launch of the Kwangmyongsong 3 rocket, to celebrate the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth, badly failed. The original intent of the propaganda campaign began to lose credibility.  The current reality is that the North falls short by 1 million tons of food supply every year. Its serious lack of foreign currency and the less-than 20 percent operation rate of its factories have put the country on the edge of a cliff.

Efforts to force on its people the worship of Kim Jong-un as the “Supreme Leader” of the nation and the commander in chief of the military will not work on its young elite, who know about the outside world through the Internet. The leaders of the country’s military, quite a few of whom are in their 80s, wear old uniforms full of medals reaching their knees to show off their status, but this tradition has become a matter of international ridicule. These old people, who do not know the world outside well, are trying desperately to extend their wealth and power to the third generation of Kims by repeating their old ways of threatening South Korea and the United States with nuclear weapons and flattering China.

It will be difficult for North Korea, even with its terror system of a police state and constant surveillance by its Ministry of Public Security, to endure its current economic malaise. Even its food supply, largely dependent on aid from China, could become more problematic considering reports that China is feeling pressure through strong criticism from the international community on its deportation of North Korean defectors and its own change of leadership in the near future, which presumably makes Beijing wonder how long it should stand up for and protect Pyongyang.

China’s attitude toward North Korea’s launch of the Kwangmyongsong rocket was  different from the past, as they have also expressed their opposition to it. With no choice left, North Korea has recently attempted to approach the United States. It is said that Ri Yong-ho, the vice foreign minister of North Korea, expressed in a seminar held at Syracuse University on March 7 that the North’s new leader “does not want to fight with the U.S.” and that if the United States signs a treaty with North Korea and puts it under the nuclear umbrella of the United States, it is willing to give up its nuclear weapons right away. According to reports from the press, he even said that he wished for the opening of liaison offices between the two countries in Pyongyang and Washington within this year.

However, President Barack Obama sternly said on the rocket launch that the time of rewarding North Korea’s provocations was over. The North is now at the edge of a cliff, as it recognizes that strong retribution from the international community will follow if it launches another rocket. Because of this, I think it might have targeted South Korea instead.

A recent news report speculated that Pyongyang is staging a mudslinging campaign toward the South to intervene in the presidential election in December and cause division in South Korea. It is expected that the North will continue to send a message that the current administration has failed completely at its policy toward North Korea by saying that it won’t deal with the Lee Myung-bak administration. The report also says that the North will provoke regional and class conflicts through Internet posts and spread stories of slander, conspiracies and groundless rumors such as a mad cow disease outbreak in South Korea. According to analysis from experts, the North believes that putting the South into a state of fear before the election will put a pro-North party into power, which will provide the North with aid, and allow it to control the South at will.

However, the old leaders of North Korea do not seem to know how much people’s sentiments have changed in South Korea. They should have never thought that their ploys would have the same effect as in the past on South Korea, a democratic G20 country whose GDP is 13th in the world and whose national brand is rising in value.

Even young people in South Korea are very disappointed with the North for always making threats and abusive remarks. As people’s thoughts on North Korea have changed, the pro-North leftists are losing ground. When those who are pro-North are told to live in the Stalinist state, they say that they don’t want to. I do not understand why North Korea tries to repeat the ways of mutual destruction when the people of South Korea want to help their brethren in the North, even if they have to skip a meal a day to do so, if North Korea apologizes and promises to give up its nuclear weapons program and stop violating the human rights of its people. It is a real pity, since South Korea has the intention to provide North Korea with all the help it needs.

Due to the rocket launch, North Korea is now totally isolated in the international community. Why does it have to launch a rocket that the whole world, even China, opposes? It seems pathetic that the North’s old leaders in their eighties, oblivious of the outside world, only try to please their new leader, Kim Jong-un, in this way.

The elections for the 19th National Assembly of South Korea ended as a truly democratic, peaceful event, with the world paying close attention. It put the North’s provocation into the shade.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).


To reform the National Assembly

By Jay Kim

The political theater of nominating candidates to run for National Assembly seats has come to a close. Those who received a nomination from their parties are happy with the results, looking radiant in interviews, but most of those who were left out complain of unfairness.

People even say that one can bear a loss in an election, but one can never forget the anger from being left out of the nominations.

The question is why any political party should have such an important process as nominations performed by its central organization, be it a process of strategic nomination or primary election. I once asked the leadership of a party whether they should let the people have the power of nomination, like the U.S. political system does.

Their answer was that since, unlike Americans, people in Korea fall short in political knowledge and judgment, parties should do the job on behalf of the people to achieve political reform by weeding out politicians.

This made me wonder if they have ever succeeded in replacing old politicians with new talents through the nomination. Looking at the people that have been nominated this time, many of the candidates of the opposition party are just the same old faces, though those of the ruling party look a little fresher. Does Korea really lack new talents for political office?

Furthermore, watching the opposition party claiming they “have finally achieved the unification of opposition parties that the people have been longing for” at their press conference, I doubted whether that was really what the people of Korea had longed for.

Korean citizens, busy making a living, cannot but look at the unification as a political show, thinking that it was only for those politicians to look out for their own interests and that they would obviously part ways after the election.

From what I hear, there are currently more than 36 registered political parties, as parties unite on one side while new parties are being created on the other side.

In fact, the simplest way to replace old politicians in the Assembly is to limit the numbers of terms of a lawmaker by not allowing him to serve more than three terms.

It is not right that the members of the Assembly are allowed to return for fifth or sixth terms, especially after they passed a law restricting the head of a local government and township councils including city councilmen from serving more than three terms.

What I suggest is that they should not be allowed to run for the Assembly once they have served three terms, not that they can run again by disappearing for a while after three terms. This would automatically bring a change of faces to the Assembly. The case of California in the U.S. is an example of this.

Recently, the Assembly rushed through a bill to increase the number of its seats to 300, without heeding public opinion. This is unimaginable in the U.S.

Furthermore, lawmakers failed to process (due to lack of a quorum) the important amendment to the Pharmaceutical Law that many people wanted, the passage of which would allow convenience stores to sell some non-prescription drugs such as aspirin, cold medicines and digestives.

The bill was nullified and the process should start again in the next session. They are just too busy looking out for their own interests.

Meanwhile, they made laws to pay a 1.2 million-won monthly pension to former members of the Assembly who are 60 or older, to pay themselves family allowances and child education expenses, and to increase their stipend by 5.1 percent, which pushed their annual wages over 100 million won.

The Korean economy is steadily moving forward, while politics is not just stalling but quickly going backwards. For example, the 16th National Assembly proposed 1,650 bills, the 17th proposed 5,730, and the 18th proposed an astounding 11,000 bills, nearly six times that of the 16th Assembly.

This only shows that the political scam of proposing bills for the sake of elections without any intention to follow through has become worse. The ratio of passed bills to proposed bills is really embarrassing. It was 15.6 percent in the 16th, 12.1 percent in the 17th and 5.4 percent in the 18th.

And 95 percent of the bills were proposed as PR stunts ― that is, in order for the members of the Assembly to put the names of bills on their congressional reports of legislative activities and get votes in the election.

Each person was nominated by his or her party to become a member of the Assembly through an election. In the U.S., the qualifications and leadership of a lawmaker are seriously questioned if the passage rate of the bills he proposed is this low.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).

Solution to rising oil price

By Jay Kim

Concerns about the price of gasoline, which has recently reached $4 per gallon in the United States, are mounting among Americans.

In Korea, things are much quieter, although the rising price of oil and gasoline costs consumers nearly twice as much as in the United States. There seems to be only resignation among Koreans at the higher prices, while those with power and money do not appear to be overly concerned about it.

The poor have no way to know why oil prices are rising at this rate. It is not the case that the consumption of oil suddenly increased to cause a shortage of supply and no war has broken out against Iran either. So people just seem to think that oil prices are simply growing in proportion to the prices of other goods.

Unlike in the United States, the people in Korea do not tenaciously ask the government why the price of gas is rising and what measures it will take against it. It might be because Koreans are generally not considered too aggressive against their own government. However, the lack of ways to predict how high gas prices will go only frustrates the poor more.

Americans believe that the high price of oil is caused not by a shortage of supply but by the vicious manipulations of speculators to make money out of the unstable state of affairs in the Middle East. As gasoline prices have increased 19 percent while economic growth is just 2.5 percent, it is hard to avoid the criticism that President Barack Obama’s plan for economic recovery has failed.

So, Obama has declared a war against soaring oil prices. Also, both the Republican and Democratic Parties are speaking with one voice in trying to hold down gasoline prices. First of all, the U.S. government decided to release part of the 727-million-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve for 60 days.

In response to speculators deviously using the Iran nuclear crisis, the government also reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia for them to increase oil production by 20 percent at least. In addition, politicians in Washington tentatively agreed on the need of a new law to stop the tyranny of the vicious oil traders and industry since the current law, following the principles of the free market, cannot stop them from raising prices.

So where does this leave Korea? Does it have any solution to the surging oil price? It does not seem to be the case. The Korean government is considering reducing oil taxes, but I wonder whether this would be enough. Furthermore, Korea’s oil transport route is a long and hard journey.

The distance from the Persian Gulf to the refineries in the southern part of Korea is 25,000 kilometers. This is the distance of 30 round trips from Seoul to the southeastern port city of Busan. It is no surprise that the oil price is so high in Korea. Moreover, the nation’s oil route is the most dangerous sea route.

Because of Iran, the Persian Gulf is dangerous to pass through, and even after passing through it, a tanker has to go through the Indian Ocean, where India and Pakistan are in a standoff. After these two dangerous seas, it has to go through the Strait of Malacca, infested with pirates.

Several-hundred-thousand-ton oil tankers with the Korean flag have to transport oil non-stop, risking lives.

This rough oil passage has been protected so far by the United States. The Seventh Fleet of the U.S. Navy, which covers the West Pacific Ocean, is protecting the route.

The whole world is now making every effort for energy conservation. If the cost of energy rises, American consumers will seek alternatives to reduce the cost. There are significantly less cars on the roads in the United States than usual. However, one cannot find any glimpse of energy conservation in Korea. I am stunned that even though oil prices have reached a historic high, oil consumption has increased by 7 percent from last year.

Who in the world are those that splash out on oil? They are probably not the people who have to pay for the oil they use. This is why lawmakers and high-ranking officials in the government should set an example by using the subway to get around Seoul.

A policy that allows only one car per family and makes it mandatory for any additional car to be an environment-friendly electric one is also needed. Everyone should unite to conserve oil. This is the way Korea can survive the energy crisis.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).

It’s polarization, stupid

By Jay Kim
Bill Clinton won a presidential election with the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.” This is a clear example of how the economy is so often the most important issue in any country’s elections, with Korea being no exception.

It goes without saying that the biggest current issue concerning the Korean economy is the problem of economic polarization. Naturally, every political party tries to make the polarization an issue in the coming election.

In fact, the polarization is not an issue that has suddenly appeared out of nowhere. It is just that the problem has become worse through the long, irresponsible conflicts in the political domain, such as the “free lunch” referendum in Seoul, “Sejong City” and “four major rivers” controversies, the anti-free trade agreement (FTA) protests, and corruption and bribery scandals involving politicians.

None of the politicians were able to propose a solution to the polarization, but as the election is drawing near, it appears that they decided to blame the polarization on big corporations and go after them to get votes. The thought behind this shallow election strategy is that attacking the 1 percent would automatically make the 99 percent support their parties.

One can see clearly that they will ignore the issue for the next four years once the election is over. It is an undeniable fact that predatory business practices of big corporations destroyed neighborhood stores, which has made the polarization worse. However, a bigger blame lies in the politicians that have left the situation alone for such a long time.

Democracy is parliamentary politics. The parliament makes law, and the administration executes the law. A country does not look like it is governed by law for its government to attack big corporations for their reckless expansion, like going into the bakery business, while having laws that allow big corporations to do so.

To resolve polarization and protect small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from the tyranny of big corporations, the National Assembly should pass an anti-trust law as soon as possible. In the U.S., the anti-trust law was originally created against monopolies and cartels, and it can be applied to the protection of SMEs. For example, it is not because of a lack of funds but because of this law that Boeing focuses on its specialty, aircraft manufacturing, and invests profits in research and development to produce better aircraft, instead of expanding into the bakery business.

If a big corporation like Boeing opens a large, luxurious bakery in a neighborhood and sells items at reduced prices every day, other small-scale bakeries cannot last a month before they have to close their stores. Boeing then would monopolize the bakery business in the area.

Then, even if Boeing raises their prices, consumers would have to use Boeing’s bakery to avoid a long trip to other areas. Monopolies are never allowed in a free market economy, since without competition, consumers cannot buy a good product at a competitive price. Because of this, the U.S. prevents neighborhood bakeries owned by big corporations by applying various incentives, licenses and zoning procedures.

When I was a mayor, I did not allow multiple stores of the same business in the same shopping mall. The city did not permit a new bakery if there is already one in the same block, and made it open in another shopping center where no bakeries exist. This is because both of the two bakeries would fail if they were allowed to do business next to each other.

We believe that if a business comes to our city, the city should help the business to succeed. The administration should not issue new business licenses without taking consideration of possible failure of unfair competition. This is the right policy that the administration should adopt.

The city of Seoul gave permits to six bakeries to open on a single shopping block, which led to the closing of five of them and only the one owned by a big corporation remaining. It was a real pity to watch the owner of a bakery closing the store, owned by generations of his family, on TV. The city blames the bakery’s going out of business on big corporations. Even without an anti-trust law, the city could have controlled issuing business license to avoid such a problem. It does not look professional for the city to join merchants in the attack against big corporations as public opinion on the issue gets worse.

Things like this seriously deepen the divisions in our society. The income gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing larger. Small businesses are struggling to stay open, but the profits of big corporations are reaching historical levels every year. As criticisms from the poor grew stronger, we saw a street demonstration to demand big corporations voluntarily get out of the bakery business at last.

This kind of mob democracy is not right. The country should be governed by law. If there is a violation of a law, it should be punished by a law. It seems that there is no appropriate law to stop the monopoly. And even when there is, it lacks correct enforcement to the extent that having such a law does not make much difference. As each election cycle comes, all the candidates attack big corporations for their unethical business expansion, but after election, it is back to business as usual.

It is a chronic problem in our politics that politicians use polarization politically just to get votes without any strong resolution to save our towns and our nation. It seems that no patriots remain in our politics now.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com). The views expressed in the above article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.