“The government’s shed is going empty, not growing,” said Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki on Monday. It was his answer to Rep. Go Min-jung of the Democratic Party of Korea asked why he piled up grains in the shed in the Special Committee on Budget & Accounts of the National Assembly. Hong is right because the national debt exceeded 1,000 trillion won due to excessive fiscal expansion. But it is absurd for someone who is responsible for the national finance and had compiled budgets more than 10 times including the supplementary budget to say this as if it is someone else’s business. Politicians’ perception of reality that grains are piled up in the shed is far from reality.
Hong marked 1,000th day in the office on Saturday. It is the longest record for a finance minister, but he almost failed as a ‘shedkeeper.’ The national budget increased by 50% compared to the early days of the current administration. And he says the shed is going empty as his term is about to expire. It could be seen as cowardice as some may think he is trying to avoid his responsibility of aggravating the national finance by saying, “I warned.”
Finance Minister Hong changed his stance once again Tuesday and said, “The finance is robust.” It was only a day after he expressed concerns about the shed. It was because his remarks were met with the backlash of lawmakers in the ruling party who said, “Do not make citizens anxious.” It is not the first time that he reversed his opinion. In the discussion for the second supplementary budget, he argued to provide cash handouts to lower 70% of the income groups and not to everyone. But he had to make a concession and raise the number to 88%. He did not carry through his opinion for the fourth cash handouts, either.
He pinned down the year 2023 as the point to improve the financial health, even though he says the national debt is rapidly growing. He passed down his responsibility to the next government. Of course, Hong should not take all the blame. The ruling party is also behind the reckless policy that rapidly increased the national debt. Politicians who are still preoccupied with doling out cash, saying the shed is still full, are to be held responsible. But a finance minister should protect the government’s shed against this populism.
There is a glut of stunt pledges due to the upcoming presidential election. Most of them are cash handout policies that take large bites into the national finance. Hong established a finance policy last year as a controller of the national debt. The policy is still loose, but has not passed the national assembly yet. He has been insisting on the policy every time he has an opportunity, but it is questionable whether he has a grit to carry this through. Time is running out for him to keep the title ‘the finance minister of the longest term’ from being tainted.