[VIEWPOINT]We look back on an awful year

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[VIEWPOINT]We look back on an awful year

The year 2001, which had its share of ups and downs, is fading away. When we watched President Kim Dae-jung step onto North Korean soil and wave to the applauding North Korean crowd in June 2000, we hardly thought that Korea would wrap up the year 2001 in such tatters. At that time, Korea was recovering from the 1997 economic debacle much faster than people expected, and relished its early graduation from the International Monetary Fund's grip. The government told the people that the side effects of corporate restructuring would be offset by the rapid development of new businesses. Not only we, but the international community as well, praised and congratulated President Kim for his selection for the Nobel Peace Prize.

As a result of all the sunny efforts carried out in 2000, Koreans seemed to neglect the negative aspects of the separation of roles of doctors and pharmacies that was a great social debate in 2000. The government started to implement other so-called reform programs in 2001. Under the guise of "impartial tax treatment policy," the administration squeezed a huge sum of back taxes and fines from media companies. The "media reform" was accompanied by the arrest of several major stockholders in media firms, which only damaged Korea's social integrity with no effect on the stated targets of the reform. Does anyone think the quality of the press and broadcast media has improved after all the noisy and ostentatious reforms the government launched?

The government has undertaken another reform, in education, but does anyone think that the overall quality of education has improved? And did the so-called deregulation steps by the government actually result in true relief from restrictive regulations after they were implemented? What about medical reform? Did it improve the quality of medical care and broaden the area of service? The government announced that it promoted political reform, but do Koreans think they are being better served by politicians?

I think not.

We must find out what caused the overall Korean system to go from bad to worse. Why are tourist ships that go to Mount Geumgang, a new initiative flowing from the "sunshine policy," not being operated properly? Why is President Kim aggravating the conflict in sentiment between Gyeongsang and Jeolla residents instead of alleviating it? Why is "jaebeol reform" only strengthening the four major conglomerates instead of weakening them? Why are the living standards of the lower economic classes declining despite the massive spending on social welfare programs? Why are labor strikes becoming even more frequent and violent after the Tripartite Commission of Labor, Management, and the Government was forced to enhance the conditions of labor?

There might be many reasons given in answer to all those questions. Unlike the first Blue House slogan, "the prepared-for-anything president", it may be that reforms have been implemented in haste rather than after deliberation. There might also have been structural contradictions between the principles and the details of the reform policies that drove government programs into chaos. The president may have overlooked the wide and insurmountable gap between real life and fanciful ideals; he may have had the fond hope that an ideal world would follow if reforms were implemented quickly.

He might have underestimated the harsh conflict between the proponents of reforms and those who resist reform that inevitably follows when changes are undertaken; certainly not everyone thinks the same way about what changes are necessary or desirable.

The realities we face on the last day of 2001 are simply miserable. An entrepreneur and alleged murderer who explained his business program before the president and even had his picture taken with him should be considered the most bizarre figure of modern Korean history. What does this incident mean? Perhaps it would be better to regard it only as low comedy. During the last year, we worked hard without having time to think about our destination, speed and whether it is necessary to pause for a break. The flow of events has caused us to overlook our destination.

In the last few days of the year, we should spare time for retrospection. The conflicts and contradictions of our modern history are confusing us. It is important that Koreans, who are in charge of their own destiny, should spare time to think about the past and make resolutions for the future. Everyone, not only politicians and government officials, should reflect on the shameful past. Otherwise, we cannot prepare for the future. There must be many other incidents awaiting us in the new year.


The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.

by Lew Seok-Choon

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