[FORUM]Step back; look at the big picture

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[FORUM]Step back; look at the big picture

There are some interesting developments in some controversial issues. The government has announced its own proposals to adopt a five-day workweek, and both the business community and labor unions are unhappy. At issue are how to set the number of holidays in a year, including monthly and menstrual leave, and how to set wages.

Also controversial is the government's decades-old policy of standardizing education at the expense of its quality. This is not a purely domestic issue; the educational gap is widening between students who have the financial and scholastic ability to study abroad and those who do not.

Many people are concerned about the future of Korea's medical system after the government's disastrous medical reforms and the integration of public health insurance plans. The financial straits of the state-run National Health Insurance Corporation will take their toll on government coffers.

Because of the failed medical reform, doctors who can save patients' lives may become scarce while we see a glut of doctors performing cosmetic surgery. Agencies are mushrooming that help patients find famous foreign hospitals that have Korean-language interpreters.

China is beginning to be called the world's factory, and direct investments there by big and small Korean firms alike have increased significantly. Companies are looking for new opportunities, but that means lost opportunities for Korean job seekers and the government that depends on workers' taxes. Companies will go anywhere they find the business environment favorable.

In the international community, the New Round negotiations are in full swing. The international trade talks are scheduled to conclude by the end of 2004, and markets will be opened beginning in 2005.

Key agenda items for the negotiations include lowering trade barriers and opening national markets for education, medical and legal services.

"Special economic zone" has become a global term. China has strategically used its special zones to open up its markets. Korea is also seeking to establish special economic zones for the future of its own economy. Those issues seem separate. But in fact, they are inseparable and intertwined.

Let's look at the government plans for the special economic zones. It proposes that rules requiring monthly and menstrual leave not be applied there; that the government allow foreign education institutions to set up schools; that foreign medical institutions and pharmacies be allowed to do business there and that foreign companies operating in the zones would be exempt from ceilings on investments in other firms.

Isn't that strange? All those issues are extremely controversial and seem impossible to solve. But in the proposed special economic zones, everything is solved at the stroke of a pen.

The secret lies in the so-called global standards. In order to lure advanced foreign corporations and their staff to this country, global standards are now minimum standards.

But we are in the paradox of discriminating against ourselves. Foreign companies can manage their first-rate businesses without giving their staff monthly and menstrual leave, while Korean firms are required to give that time off to their employees. Ordinary Koreans think they are discriminated against because they have no access to foreign medical and education services that rich Koreans enjoy overseas. Should they endure discrimination at home as well?

Korea tries to attract leading foreign companies. Should Korea's best firms look for special economic zones overseas for better business conditions?

Be it the New Round negotiations, the special economic zones, education or the medical system, Korea must handle those issues according to global standards.

It would be better if the entire country were made a special economic zone. But problems like education, medical system and labor disputes resist solutions.

The problems must be solved in parallel. The government can start with economic zones and expand them gradually. We should open the education and medical markets through trade negotiations instead of opening them in economic zones only, and allow leading Korean firms to operate in the special zones.

We should have the vision to look at all those issues together.


The writer is a senior economic writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Soo-gil

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