[INSIGHT]Dreams of low-key, real reforms

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[INSIGHT]Dreams of low-key, real reforms

Ten years ago, President-elect Kim Young-sam started the process of taking over from the Roh Tae-woo administration. One of the senior officials in the transition committee of the new president said that the most important thing for the next administration was "change and reform" and that it would appoint people who could carry out those changes. Well, if someone asks now what change and reform were accomplished during the Kim Young-sam era, people would be hard-pressed to come up with any.

In fairness, though, things were different then. The so-called "civilian government" had just gotten power back from the military after 30 years, and there was good reason for the new administration to fly the flag of reform. But still, I was a bit surprised at the emphasis on reform; the word had a fresh feeling then. Now, people -- especially politicians -- have shouted it so many times that the word has become boring. Unless someone tries to argue that "reform" has an ideological, liberal meaning, the concept transcends questions of conservative and liberal. Reform is also necessary to repair conservative values on occasion.

I don't like to hear the word reform used as the opposite of conservatism, as it is so often in Korean politics today. The word has become nothing more than a label. But in any case, Mr. Roh Moo-hyun won the presidency with a slogan of reform; forgive me for having some doubts about whether the so-called 2030 generation that adopted the phrase and fervidly supported Mr. Roh, has any idea what the word means.

This is not a trivial question, but it is an essential one to answer. Do the youth advocate reform because they have determined what parts of Korean society have to be reformed and how, or do they advocate it out of a spirit of rebellion against vested interests and the older generation? If the latter is correct, Mr. Roh's victory is not one of reform, but only of getting a larger number of votes. There is no doubt that the Red Devils, candlelight demonstrations and Nosamo, Mr. Roh's fan club, are now social phenomena, but I am not sure if they reflect any real desire to reform.

This is not only my question. I have heard many times from young people that they really wanted to vote for Kwon Young-ghil, the Democratic Labor Party candidate who is politically much further left than Mr. Roh, but were dissuaded because the gap between the two front-runners was too small to throw away their votes by opting for Mr. Kwon.

Five years ago, President-elect Kim Dae-jung started working with the Kim Young-sam administration on the handover of power. Facing the foreign exchange crisis, the transition committee began administering the government before it was actually inaugurated and moved to reform institutions and corporations. But reform could not be done by jawboning. Some ministries slated to be closed were kept alive for some reason. The Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries escaped the axe when Kim Young-sam, who had established it, pled for its life. Thanks to that intervention, Roh Moo-hyun had a chance to be a minister in the Kim Dae-jung administration. After a second round of reforms in 1999, the government ended up larger than ever, putting the administration's "small-government" promise to shame.

It is no exaggeration to say that the only topic of the Kim Dae-jung administration was reform, and that the term has fallen out of favor because of overuse and underperformance. There have been so many cries for reform, and so few successful reforms, that "reform fatigue" has become a new catchphrase.

If this administration had tried to accomplish only the necessary reforms at the lowest cost, reform would not have become an issue in the recent election campaign. There would have been no thoughts raised to the effect that the victory was Mr. Roh's alone, not that of the Millennium Democratic Party or of the Kim Dae-jung administration. I hope that reform failure will be a lesson for the new administration; in other words, I hope they will not be loud-mouthed and boisterous about reform, but just carry it out persistently and effectively as Mr. Roh and his supporters promised during the campaign.

The Kim Young-sam administration stopped the well-planned seventh five-year economic plan abruptly, put forward "five -year planning for a new economy" and launched a 100-day plan. It thought the destiny of the next five years would be decided in the first 100 days; but instead, it handed off the government to a new administration with the economy in the depths of a crisis despite their boasts.

The most successful of the Kim Dae-jung administration's achievements was, I think, the sunshine policy. The word "reform" was never mentioned in connection with that program. I cannot think of a more valuable reform than the sunshine policy, that melted the 50-year cold war on the peninsula without any controversy about reform.

I am dreaming that real reforms can be accomplished in the same way -- with no flags and trumpets but with persistence.

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Joshep W. Chung

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