[VIEWPOINT]Modernity Awaits but Feudal Ties Persist

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[VIEWPOINT]Modernity Awaits but Feudal Ties Persist

The feudal lords of the Middle Ages built castles at strategic transportation arteries to make easy money by demanding a toll from travelers. Since great interests were at stake, the feudal landlords fought constantly to win better positions. At the beginning of the modern age, the ultimate winner among the feudal lords became the absolute monarch who monopolized money-making privileges, giving some away to his subordinates or selling them. This custom is known as mercantilism.

Liberal and democratic movements in the modern West battled against mercantilism. The essence of liberalization was creating a market economy that encouraged its major principle, competition, and breaking up the monopolies that had prospered under the protection of monarchs. To achieve this, the power of the monarch had to be restricted or abolished.

Korea's situation is similar to that of the modern West before liberalization, particularly the period of Korea's economic development led by the military dictatorship. Through the structure of a close relationship between political and business circles and the government-managed economy, those who were politically powerful could seize the bulk of economic benefits. Those close to power could make easy money like feudal landlords did; block the road and receive passage money in broad daylight. The main task set to Korean society after the middle of the 1980s was to dismantle this absurd structure. Liberalization had progressed significantly due to economic growth and international pressure. Korea succeeded in establishing a democratic political system, albeit superficial, through the intense democratization movement.

But Korea is no longer on the right track. This is evidenced by the fact that the close relationship between political and business circles and the government-managed economy persists. With all sorts of rights and privileges still attainable by exerting political influence, no matter how democratized Korea has become in appearance, fierce competition for these privileges is still rampant. After the Korean military dictators - who can be likened to the absolute monarchs of the medieval West - were usurped, the national elections have become the battlegrounds in which candidates fight for power battle, akin to the battles between feudal landlords of the medieval West. Since the stakes are high, the candidates have no qualms about provoking regional antagonisms to win.

The final winners who succeed in taking power through elections do not change the fundamental framework of collusion between politics, business and the state-managed economy, despite their pledges otherwise. Why would they, when they labored so long under the system to seize power? They don't have the time to manage the national administration properly because at the start of their "reign" they have to divide up the booty, and later they are preoccupied with staying in power. When the ruling party succeeds in coming to power again, the system is perpetuated. Even when the ruling party fails, new faces replace the old ones and the same conduct is repeated.

What can break this vicious cycle? Ironically, it is the ability and will of the national leader. From this perspective, an "imperial" president may not be altogether a bad thing. Three years ago, when President Kim Dae-jung came into power, the people had high expectations that the new government would break the mold. And the changes forced by the International Monetary Fund laid the groundwork for reforms to proceed. But under the new government the situation has deteriorated lamentably. It is also disappointing that the opposition party has fared no better. It is not too late. The government must implement democracy and market principles. That will see them returned to power. Meanwhile, the opposition party must assure the public that it could do the job better. Then the Korean people can look toward the future with hope.


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The writer is a professor of economics at Yonsei University.


by Lee Jay-min

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