[OUTLOOK]Big ideas require more than talk

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[OUTLOOK]Big ideas require more than talk

Every time I hear about the government’s latest big idea, I think about the old days and try not to worry. There were plenty of big ideas back then, too, and they always seemed to work out well.
Early in the Park Chung Hee administration, when the government announced that a Seoul-Busan expressway would be built, many people doubted it could be done. The same went for the creation of Posco. But the expressway was built, and Posco became a success.
Years later, under President Chun Doo Hwan, the government announced that the inflation rate would be brought down into the single digits. At the time, even bringing inflation anywhere near 10 percent seemed impossible. Economic specialists muttered that people with military backgrounds were taking on impossible tasks because they didn’t know anything about the economy. The process was harsh, and it had its negative effects, but in the end, inflation was brought below 10 percent.
It’s a good thing that such experiences gave Korea a boost in confidence ―gave us the idea that we can do it, whatever it is. But now it seems as though our confidence is out of hand. We remember the amazing results we achieved, but we seem to have forgotten the hard work and pain we had to go through to get there.
For extraordinary plans to be achieved, they need to be supported by detailed preparations and remarkable effort. Otherwise, a plan to draw a tiger could wind up producing a housecat.
When we built our first expressway, the whole country stuck together and concentrated on the project from the moment the plan was announced. The president himself visited construction sites by helicopter, and sorted out several problems that were caused by the rushed construction work.
When the Posco project got underway, Park Chung Hee acted as if he were both Korea’s president and Posco’s CEO. The prime minister might as well have been Posco’s vice president in charge of planning. We could feel the presence of great political might and powerful energy back then.
The circumstances were the same when we decided to control inflation. The government pushed a stabilization policy like it was a military strategy, and bundled together the budget, interest rates, dividends and wages as a single issue.
Such measures must have worked because we were under military dictatorships. The governing party and the people associated with it protested loudly when the administration cut the budget for buying grain from farmers, and froze government’s purchase price for rice, at a time when the legislative elections were around the corner.
The budget authority even reduced the defense budget, which had been considered sacrosanct. The generals stormed the budget office, threatening that if North Korea invaded, they would come to punish the budget officials before they went to the front lines to fight.
But the president gave his full support to the budget reduction, and the generals who protested were punished. The stabilization policy then took effect, and the goal of single-digit inflation was reached. We probably owe today’s stabilized prices to the groundwork that was laid at that time.
If we are to achieve a difficult task, all resources and efforts must be concentrated in one direction. Most importantly, the person at the top must provide direct supervision and consistent support.
Now that we have achieved so-called democratization, big, impressive achievements have become scarce. One reason might be that everything has to go through the democratic process now. But it may also be true that the people in authority are trying to do too many things at once, and all while trying to stay popular. What’s more, there are more people than there used to be who talk well, but don’t do things very well. People like that don’t have their feet on the ground. They are all about aspiration and dreams, and because of this, they tend not to think very realistically.
The Kim Young-sam administration had some big ideas, such as globalization, but the results were unsatisfactory. That was mostly because the effort and the preparations to match the ideas weren’t there. When the Kim Dae-jung administration cultivated a boom in start-up businesses, and encouraged people to use credit cards, they had plenty of aspirations, but they weren’t ready for the consequences. The results were not good, and people are still suffering from the effects.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration has also come up with many large-scale ideas. The “hub of Northeast Asia,” the relocation of the capital, “self-reliance” in diplomacy and national security and, most recently, the “balancer” role in Northeast Asia ―all of these are extraordinary ideas. In terms of scale, they surpass the creation of Posco, the reduction of inflation and the building of the first freeway. They are difficult tasks upon which the country’s fate depends.
But I am not convinced that we are prepared to pursue these projects. The government certainly has determination, but it has no detailed strategies or action plans to back it up.
For one thing, the administration hasn’t put enough effort into persuading the public. They say that this is because they are trying to pursue their goals through the democratic process, but reality is not meeting up to their elaborate words. Given this state of affairs, I cannot squelch my doubts about whether things will go well.
I tell myself that having lived through such extraordinary times in the past, I will not be surprised if tomorrow’s accomplishments are smaller. I tell myself that everything will somehow be okay. But I find it hard not to worry, just like I did in the old days. I worry even more now, because of all the issues at stake, our security as a nation tops the list.

* The writer is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Woo-suk
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