[NOTEBOOK]President, Tell Us What We Hate to Hear

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[NOTEBOOK]President, Tell Us What We Hate to Hear

During his Aug. 15 Liberation Day address, President Kim Dae-jung made a list of promises: Increasing spending to upgrade education to the level of advanced countries by 17 trillion won ($13.3 billion); creating 2 million jobs, and spending 8.4 trillion won to build 200,000 rental homes for low-income families. Seeing the chief executive thoughtfully consider what common people need was encouraging to. But I could not help feeling that one thing was missing in his speech.

He could have evoked far greater sympathy if he had asked for the people's "understanding and cooperation." Carrying out such expensive projects with limited state budgets will require inevitably some sacrifices or more taxes from people.

We cannot exaggerate the importance of education, jobs and shelter. The measures are timely, too. Therefore, he should have explained to the public that spending more money to build homes, create jobs and improve education will mean reduced or delayed investment in other areas and that people must endure the inconveniences that will follow.

Let's turn back the clock 30 years: "We cannot afford to waste or idle away even a moment. We have to build while fighting and fight while building. We must enhance our sense of duty to hand over a worthy legacy to our descendants. It is no exaggeration to say that this is our last chance to restore our country. I ask all my fellow Koreans to participate, cooperate and work harder for national security and prosperity."

These are excerpts from Liberation Day addresses made by President Park Chung Hee in late 1970s.

President Park's speeches made no promises whatsoever to the public and were full of requests. Such speeches would now be faulted for being "anachronistic" because back then, President Park based the legitimacy of his dictatorship on anti-Communism and economic development. Our parents' generation tightened their belts and worked hard so we would be better off than they were, and they were forced to make unilateral sacrifice.

A few days ago, when the Bank of Korea, the central bank, announced that Korea's economic growth had slowed to 2.7 percent, government officials didn't forgot to add that the slowdown was caused by a global turndown and that the country was performing better than many other economies. The U.S. economy grew 0.2 percent, Singapore contracted 0.9 percent and Taiwan shrunk 2.4 percent. Bureaucrats said the Korean economy would pick up in the fourth quarter. But they should be aware that such explanations may make people rather uneasy.

Corporations complain that Korea is a tough place to do business, and their facility investment for future growth has made minus 10 percent regress. Foreign businesses are reluctant to come to Korea. Worse yet, even Korean firms are trying to get out; everybody knows that, and the government sows confusion by saying, "It's all right."

If we are to be strong and competitive enough to fend off external shocks, the government and businesses and workers should make greater effort and sacrifices.

No economy can make everyone happy all the time. Every policy requires trade-offs. The government should not hesitate to demand that people endure the side effects of its policies. It is, of course, the government's responsibility to agonize, study and map out strategies. The last thing it should do is cut taxes and loosen its purse strings.

On Thursday, Korea fully repaid its loans from the International Monetary Fund, three years ahead of schedule. The credit should go to the common people, many of whom donated their gold rings during the 1997-1998 economic debacle to help the country repay debts.

The government should stop gushing what people want to hear and say more of what they hate to hear. By doing so, it can expect more cooperation from the people.

John F. Kennedy said during his inaugural address as U.S. president in 1961, "My fellow Americans. Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

The government should remember why that statement has become so enduring.


The writer is a deputy business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Min Byong-kwan

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