[VIEWPOINT]Grand schemes vs. little reforms

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[VIEWPOINT]Grand schemes vs. little reforms

The second half of the 20th century saw an upsurge of civil movements. These movements contributed greatly to democracy; in Europe, the cradle of such activity, civic groups now are the most influential power for social change. The green movement that was formed by private citizens in Germany changed the whole perspective from which people viewed the environment. It eventually developed into an influential political party.

Korea, too, has seen a rise in civil movements recently. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the 1980s, social movements were mainly led by students. The mid-80s and 1990s was the period of labor movements.

Just as student movements paved the way for democracy, labor movements greatly improved the working conditions and the living standards of average Koreans. Now, the baton has been passed to other civil movements. Nowadays, it seems that almost everyone who appears in interviews in television news programs to explain social issues and point out cases of corruption in society is a member of a civic group. Instead of scholars and experts, civic group members have taken over the job of demanding change.

It is hard to define what exactly constitutes a civil movement, but I believe there is an "appropriate" civil movement as well as a "right" civil movement. There are many ways civil movements in Korea need to improve themselves.

First of all, civil movements in Korea tend to focus more on grand issues like political reform and democratization of the economy. Instead of tending to concerns that affect our everyday life, like the environment or traffic problems, movements tend to demand large-scale structural changes in society. What would be the concerns of political parties in Europe are concerns of civic groups in Korea.

Second, there seems to be a notion in Korea that civic groups should be big and well-organized, with dozens of full-time employees. These civic groups ask corporations for money to support their staffs and even operate their own businesses for profit.

Third, Korean civic groups go beyond evaluating and demanding changes in government policies and try to interfere in the management of individual businesses. In some cases, like the decision to separate pharmacies and physicians in 1998, the government reportedly mobilized civic groups to "persuade" the public to support its decision. This is a deviation from the traditional role of civic groups.

I am a believer in civic movements and I hope the existing civic groups will help Korean society become more mature by making the following changes:

First of all, civic groups should be based on expertise. That is, a civic group should consist of experts who concentrate on the group's cause and who are willing to disperse once the group's goal is achieved. A civic group should not exist for the group's sake. The separation of pharmacists and doctors is again an example. Without any consideration of the social problems that might occur after the separation, civic groups insisted that we should accept it because other advanced countries were doing it. Such civic campaigns failed to gain support; it wasn't the public that they had in mind.

In addition, civic groups should cut down the number of paid staffers and call in volunteers to help when needed. Oxfam, the British nongovernmental organization that sells used books, CDs and other goods to support developing countries, is a classic example. More full-time staffers lead to more bureaucracy and financial burdens to support the group, which in turn requires a conglomerate-style of operation. If a group's expertise in a special field is lost, the group just becomes dead weight.

Civil movements should work inside the law and should be realistic and rational. The efforts of some civic groups to disqualify certain candidates in the National Assembly elections in 2000 that they believed were unqualified were far from desirable.

Finally, I would like civic groups to open their eyes to the bigger picture. Until now, groups have been making demands of bigger corporations and taking sides with minority shareholders. But it is only natural for corporations to do their own managing in a capital market. It should not be forgotten that corporations are the wheels on which our economy rolls. We should be trying to get rid of regulations that hamper corporate management.

Civic groups should also work for liberalization, cutting red tape and privatization - the three components of successful globalization. If capitalism is the only way left to us now, civic groups should lend a hand in paving the way.


The writer is a professor of politics at Free University Berlin.

by Park Sung-jo

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