[OUTLOOK]Decentralized Power Is More EffectivePower is threatening when it is badly and secretly used. In politics, a leader can quickly lose the people's support when he abuses his power for the benefit of minority groups that demand action on their own pet reforms, whether or not they are widely supported.
The Grand National Party fell into this power trap immediately after they won a near-majority in the National Assembly. They flexed their muscles by moving to extend the retirement age for teachers. The decision to change the retirement age was allegedly taken in order to return certain rights to teachers and to remedy a policy the GNP disagreed with. The party's so-called reform, however, overlooks demands for more job opportunities from teacher candidates and ignores efforts to make schools more competitive. It is, in short, an abuse of power.
President Kim has fallen into the same trap because he puts a lot of weight on a "speed before quality" style of policy-making.
Jaebeol, he said, are bad. The big business groups needed to be tamed, he believed, so he cracked down on them with his notorious "big deal" policies of a few years ago. In a display of imperial power, the administration tried to manipulate the economy by dictating who should make cars, who should dominate the semiconductor industry and so on. The outcome of those policies was, not to put too fine a point on it, a mess.
The same thing happened when the government tried to reform the medical system. Doctors are monopolists, the government said, and so "reforms" were instituted immediately. The main intention was to confiscate some of the medical fees doctors received and give them to pharmacists, and another goal was to control the overprescription of drugs. The repercussions are still echoing through our medical and medical insurance systems.
Controlling the press, the administration thought, would be easier. There was a drumbeat of criticism about "hegemonic press power." That spurred the National Tax Service and the Public Prosecutors Office to launch investigations into the tax affairs of media companies. But what, if anything, have we gained from the alleged "reforms"?
There are two main weapons that the government uses to misuse its power. The first is the absolute power that the administration wields, and the second is populist sentiment, especially as enunciated by minority groups pressing for reforms. Absolute power was behind the "big deals"; the government tapped into public dislike of the chaebol and a desire to see them humbled and tried to force economic remedies that did not take into account the autopilot functions of a free-market economy. These command decisions and policies eventually led to distortions of democracy and the free market and ended with the government achieving nothing but bringing distrust down on itself.
President Kim's resignation from the post of president of the Millennium Democratic Party, and his announcement that he will devote himself to affairs of government, not of partisan politics, draws attention to the question of how he will redistribute government power. He should take the opportunity to establish new traditions of decentralizing his administration's power. The occasion could be a turning point, producing healthier policies that the administration now lacks.
A 10,000 won bill in a persons pocket is 10,000 won of social value. But if the money is deposited in a bank and the bank lends it out, a multiplier effect begins to work and the social benefits will reach 30,000 won or more. That same multiplier is at work in the exercise of political power.
Power becomes vigorous and useful when it is delegated to those with the capacity and professionalism to handle it. China is one example; its political system started to stabilize when the president of China, Jiang Zemin, delegated some power to Premier Zhu Rongji. The more power is centralized, the less stable it is. North Korea's system, where power is concentrated exclusively at the top, shows that the exercise of power by one person usually results not only in domestic instability but in an inability to cooperate with other nations.
Reform policies that are not plugged into the Korean social climate are being implemented without being checked first to see if they will work. The president's son is seen as exercising skyrocketing power for no discernible reason, and he seems to have followed outdated precedents that no longer apply in our modern society. To correct this serious problem of the misuse of power, President Kim should select competent technocrats and political leaders and give them adequate power to reform the political and economic structure of Korea. The reconstruction of the political system, in particular, will eventually boost public and legislative support for his policies and his administration.
The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kwon Young-bin