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[Robert J. Fouser] Yoon Suk-yeol’s neoliberalism

May 20, 2022 - 05:31 By Robert J. Fouser

President Yoon Suk-yeol began his five-year term last Tuesday with an optimistic inauguration speech. In it, the new president focused on raising the nation’s competitiveness in science and technology and maintaining a strong security posture, but it was his repeated use of the word freedom that caught people’s attention. The president used the word 35 times in the 17-minute speech.

The speech immediately set President Yoon apart from today’s intellectual currents moving away from neoliberalism toward what could best be called “neo-statism.” Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the leaders of 1980s neoliberalism, would have given Yoon high grades for his emphasis on freedom and for this courage in bucking current intellectual trends.

President Yoon’s channeling of Reagan and Thatcher appears antiquated. Like other social trends, political philosophies rise and fall over time. Reconstituted versions of old philosophies reappear but never in the same way. Neoliberalism has its origins in 19th-century free market capitalism but became dominant in the 1980s as politicians, starting with Reagan and Thatcher, started to roll back government intervention in the economy and society. This manifested itself in policies advocating lower taxes, less government spending, deregulation, and free trade.

During the last two decades of the 20th century, neoliberalism made its mark. Market-oriented policies stimulated global economic growth, which contributed to the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. Globalization set openness and democracy as benchmarks, which contributed to the greatest expansion of democracy in human history

By the early 2000s, neoliberalism created by-products that began to stir a counter reaction. The terrorist attacks in the US on Sept. 11, 2001, forced a retreat from freedom of movement, one of the tenants of globalization. They were also a reminder of the strong resistance to globalization and neoliberal values. The 1997 Asian Financial Crises and the 2008 Global Financial Crises and the Great Recession undermined faith in markets as governments rushed to stabilize collapsing economies. The growing threat of climate change has caused governments to take action to promote a shift away from fossil fuels. Most recently, governments around the world have taken unprecedented actions to reduce the spread and impact of COVID-19.

As the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on, criticism of aggressive mitigation efforts began to emerge. In early 2020, China’s draconian lockdowns were viewed as an effective response but by 2022 they are now viewed as police-state control. Gradually other forms of recent government intervention, such as tariffs and regulations, have come under increased scrutiny as the global economy searchers for stability. Meanwhile, the Russian invasion of Ukraine strengthened European cooperation and gave NATO new meaning, which helped to undermine populist “my-country-firstism.”

Growing doubts about “neo-statism,” however, do not mean a return to neoliberalism because problems that emerged from the neoliberal era require varying degrees of government intervention. President Yoon’s speech said as much in references to increased investment in science and technology and in his call for South Korea to increase cooperation with other nations in dealing with global issues.

Yoon’s call for balance between neoliberalism and “neo-statism” offers a third way for other nations searching for balance to follow. For nations that have already taken such as stance, Yoon’s speech offers validation.

The problem with Yoon’s third way is a lack of interest in weak, less fortunate members of society. At the end the speech, Yoon promised to turn South Korea into “a country based on the pillars of freedom, human rights, fairness and solidarity; a country that is respected by others around the world.” These lofty goals are admirable, but they leave out the weak, which in turn suggests that President Yoon clings tightly to neoliberal ideas.

The weak are many in South Korea. The rapid pace of aging ensures that the weak population will continue to grow because retirees live on fixed incomes. At the other end of spectrum, younger people face increased financial insecurity that leaves them feeling weak. People who differ from the mainstream continue to face difficulties and, at times, outright discrimination, leaving them feeling alienated and vulnerable.

Instead of Reagan or Thatcher, President Yoon should channel US President George H. W. Bush who called for a “kinder, gentler nation” to soften the edges of neoliberalism. Bush understood the limitations of doctrinaire neoliberalism but spent most of his single four-year term focusing on foreign policy challenges. Yoon’s vision for the country, in Bushian terms, is as a “smarter, more respected nation.” Amending it to “smarter, kinder nation” would show his commitment to a third way works for the weak and vulnerable.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.