[INSIGHT]Privatization is settled; move on!

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[INSIGHT]Privatization is settled; move on!

"Bureaucrats should never engage in business; only private-sector people should," President Kim Dae-jung said before public sector workers went out on strike. President Kim, who left the people disheartened with his January press conference, has for once made a good point.

He has recently stressed the principles and steps involved in the privatization of public corporations. After labor unions claimed that privatization could make the situation worse, citing the case of Great Britain, President Kim said Korea's plan was different.

Great Britain privatized management and maintenance of public sector services, but Korea will only privatize management, he said. He added that the government should construct railroads as part of providing infrastructure, but improving services on the rails should be in the hands of the private sector.

That is why businessmen should run the services, the president concluded.

Those who have traveled in Japan say that train travel there is very convenient. Japanese trains always arrive and depart on schedule, even in remote northern areas covered with snow. Train tours cost more than traveling by automobile, but they are more comfortable. Japanese rail service has all been privatized.

Railroad, gas and power plants are infrastructure for all citizens, so it is natural for the government to take charge of maintaining the facilities and the private sector to manage the services provided. The privatization of public corporations is a current in today's world. Korea has taken steps to privatize infrastructure corporations, and the National Assembly has only to approve related legislation drawn up by the government.

But public sector workers staged strikes over this issue, and lawmakers across the political spectrum are siding with the strikers and trying to stymie the government's plan. Politicians are fawning over the unions to gain a foothold in this year's presidential and local elections.

President Kim's tenure expires within a year. The lame-duck syndrome at the end of an administration is a common phenomenon in all nations, even though it may differ in intensity. Former administrations here broke down and lost their sense of direction when their tenure began to draw close to the end. The Kim Dae-jung administration and the opposition should resolve not to follow their predecessors, but to fulfill their obligations until the last minute.

Although decisions made by the government and politicians draw complaints from workers and cause inconveniences for citizens for a while, politicians should perform their duties out of patriotism. But the ruling and the opposition parties are in the same boat in dealing with the strike ?they're avoiding any confrontation or are against privatization. The ruling party should support President Kim despite his resignation from his position of party head last year.

Privatization of the railroads is an urgent task for the current government. Next year, the operation of a high-speed train will be launched. The government says the liabilities of the National Railroad Administration will mushroom from 1.5 trillion won ($1.1 billion) to 13 trillion won in 2004 and 28 trillion in 2008 if it has to acquire the high-speed railroad.

If sound management to cut down costs and enhance profitability were introduced through privatization, the railroad administration could pay off its debts as early as 2019.

But the current administration seems to want to hand over the issue to the upcoming administration to avoid the hassle of dealing with it.

The Supreme Court recently ruled that issues concerned with corporate restructuring, such as closing down and integrating organizations and reducing payrolls, are not a subject for collective bargaining between labor and management.

It said that strikes protesting the restructuring are illegal. The court's decision has settled the most controversial issue between labor and management in the past 10 years. The court's ruling is an epoch-making decision, changing the framework of labor-management relations and conforming to global standards.

But the ongoing strike of power plant workers casts a shadow on the Supreme Court's ruling. The workers are demanding that privatization, which was approved by the National Assembly with bipartisan support two years ago, be rescinded. Labor wants to take advantage of the administration's lethargy during this lame-duck stage.

Businesses should manage businesses ?not bureaucrats or labor unions. Privatization is not a collective bargaining issue; workers approved of the plan two years ago when their representatives in the National Assembly approved it.

People are tired of watching the government study the faces of illegal strikers to plan its next move as lawmakers sit on their hands.


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The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kwon Young-bin

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