[FORUM]A dangerous style of politics

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[FORUM]A dangerous style of politics

The expression “bicycle management” has been used to describe corporations that run like a bicycle, requiring continuous pedaling, because they are endlessly borrowing money and making investments here and there. Borrow, make profits, pay off a loan, borrow again.... As long as such a business runs smoothly in this way, it will quickly grow, regardless of what the business actually produces. But if it gets stuck at any point, it falls over.
Some people have characterized the management style of Kim Woo-choong, the founder and former chairman of Daewoo Group, as bicycle management. But Daewoo is not the only corporation that did business that way. Most of the Korean corporations that went through hard times during the foreign exchange crisis of 1997-98 had the same style of management.
Nowadays, it seems that even politicians are following this method. They “borrow” a variety of non-political issues and use them in politics. One recent hot issue, Seoul National University’s plan to introduce a comprehensive essay test as a part of the university’s admission criteria, is a good example.
Although Seoul National’s plan is still the early stages of development, it became an important political issue when the president made some comments criticizing it. Since then, some politicians who had previously showed little interest in education have suddenly been bullying Seoul National into a corner with their criticism, as though the university were the main culprit in the undermining of Korea’s public education. Organizations that promote egalitarianism in education have joined forces with these politicians.
And so, with the snap of a finger, the university that all college-bound students aspire to attend has become a public enemy.
Public opinion over the Seoul National University issue is starkly divided. In the view of those who are taking sides on it, one is either a friend or an enemy. Fueling this confrontational situation is a vague hostility toward the wealthy people who live south of the Han River, in the Gangnam area of Seoul.
In addition to this general resentment of the wealthy, Seoul National University is accused of being the point of origin for Korea’s deeply rooted academic cronyism. In other words, one highly flammable element after another has been tossed onto this issue, and a lit match has been flicked onto the pile.
As a result, the debate over Seoul National University’s admissions system has taken on the character of combat between southern Seoul and northern Seoul; the rich versus the poor; progressives versus conservatives; reform versus status quo. It would be nice to hear some constructive alternatives to the problem suggested, with an eye toward what would be the best policy for education. But the ferocity of the politics involved has left no room for that possibility.
When the government appointed Kim Jin-pyo as deputy prime minister for education, it was known that he had been chosen mainly for his economic expertise. If the government, then, had the intention of incorporating the logic of economics into education policy, it was only natural that the issue of Seoul National University’s admissions system would be addressed from such a perspective.
But the president turned the issue into a political one by stepping forward before the government could address the problem that way, or even think about doing so. Now the issue of whether or not Seoul National introduces its own essay test has gone beyond the realm of education policy; it has become a high-level issue of national governance.
Of course, under the present circumstances in Korea, in which the problem of education has become so twisted, it is right that the president should get personally involved in the matter. Education is too important to be left to the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development alone. So exactly what ideas should we be expecting to hear from the president?
What we should expect is a vision of human resources development for the future. In other words, the president needs to agonize over how to nurture the talented people who will lead Korea through the 21st century. That is the education policy that most of the people would like to see from the president.
But from the president’s political perspective, it doesn’t matter whether he lives up to those expectations or clings to the admission policies of each university; the supporters of the administration will always back him up. Indeed, such political controversies can serve as a kind of mobilization training for the party in power, testing the unity of their supporters. The heat of controversy can even become a source of energy, strengthening the governing camp’s fighting spirit.
Nor need such divisiveness be limited to the issue of Seoul National University and its admissions system. The temptation to politicize issues that can split the people into two camps will only become greater, because only by doing so can the administration continue its “bicycle politics.”
The administration will continue to bring new issues into politics, divide the people and break through the situation by defeating the other side. Perhaps they think that if they just keep pedaling, they might be able to stay ahead, despite the instability of their public support.
But there is one thing the government has overlooked: Bicycle politics, which depend on continually conquering the opponent, can never be a win-win situation. The bicycle may run fine, but there will always be a loser, sometimes with serious wounds. And if the bicyclist loses his balance, the damage ― as in bicycle management ― will be suffered by the people as a whole.

* The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s media planning team.

by Nahm Yoon-ho
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