[GLOBAL EYE]Clever plan from the bureaucratsThe battle of cigarette prices has begun. While the timing and the magnitude of the increase are yet to be decided, it is a fact that a cigarette price rise is inevitable. The price increase also fits perfectly with the pursuit of “global standards,” one of Koreans’ favorite themes. But the Ministry of Finance and Economy and the Ministry of Health and Welfare have different opinions on the issue; the Finance Ministry is concerned about the economic effects of the consumer price increase, while the Health Ministry is worried about the social cost and the evil influence of smoking.
In the debate, one of the crucial factors for the cigarette price increase is how the additional revenue would be used. The Ministry of Health and Welfare wants to spend the money on the poor. What makes the Health Ministry’s plan more enticing is the surprisingly fresh and creative idea to use a certain portion of a fund created by South Korean smokers for the health and welfare of our North Korean neighbors.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare suggested using 1 percent of the additional revenue from the cigarette price increase to send medical supplies to North Korea. The money could be spent to build a factory to produce much-needed antibiotics. Or the money could purchase the drugs that the North Korean people are desperately short of. The plan also coincides with the JoongAng Ilbo’s campaign last year to use 1 percent of the government’s budget for North Koreans. The government promised to supply 400,000 tons of food and 200,000 tons of fertilizer to the North this year; the combined aid would be worth about 700 billion won ($600 million), 0.6 percent of Seoul’s 1.1-trillion-won annual budget. For those who think that the situation around the Korean Peninsula is frozen by the North’s nuclear threat, this might be too large an amount. But if it is considered to be essential humanitarian aid, the amount is still less than one percent of our national budget.
Mount Geumgang tourism operations are the representative inter-Korean cooperation project through which cash has flowed into the North. The money has not been a one-sided favor from the South, but Washington has been subtly displeased with the project. Washington’s reluctance was one of the reasons for the delay of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex project. But Seoul could not complain about the delay since it was revealed that a large sum of cash was paid to Pyeongyang for the inter-Korean summit. But even the Bush administration would not interfere in efforts to send medical supplies to the North. Some Washington officials could think in private that, if North Korean people are freed from starvation and illness, they could become an obstacle to the collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime. Although they lack in strategic thinking and presume that the North’s half century-old regime will collapse immediately, they live in a culture that champions humanitarianism. The health conditions of North Koreans are not related to the survival of their system or regime, but they are more important than anything else for the future of the entire nation.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare hopes to discourage South Korean youth from smoking and to aid North Korean people with additional revenue by raising cigarette prices, and the proposal is convincing and touching. We did not expect that bureaucrats could come up with such a good idea. At the core of the plan is the cooperation in welfare between the two Koreas, and this is a win-win solution for the future. Pyeongyang has preferred cash aid, but both sides have come to realize that transactions in goods are more realistic and desirable. The Heath Ministry’s proposal to send medical supplies is perfectly attainable and refreshing.
Of course, there still are many in the South who need help. That is why the ministry plans to use 99 percent of the additional revenue for the improvement of health conditions for our low-income population and infrastructure for the public health system. Before giving a final nod to raise cigarette prices, the government needs to consider the impact of that action on the overall price index, which the Ministry of Finance and Economy has been addressing. It is undesirable that Pyeongyang continues to threaten the security of the Korean Peninsula with its nuclear ambitions. Still, we need more of these constructive proposals. After a series of outside pressures, finally we can think about the health and welfare of our people.
When the grand welfare plan is implanted, the government should be wise enough not to boast of its achievement. It would be best if the government steps aside and lets civic groups with ample experience in North Korean relief projects initiate the medical supply aid. When nongovernmental organizations lead the humanitarian efforts, foreign governments and organizations will have better justification to join.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kil Jeong-woo