[OUTLOOK]The legacy of the ‘Sogang School’

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[OUTLOOK]The legacy of the ‘Sogang School’

The “Sogang School” is under fire for something that happened over 20 years ago. As the discussion over the polarization of society intensifies, the Sogang School has been singled out as the root of this phenomenon. The school’s members were the ones who pushed for rapid economic growth in the past, and rapid economic development is said to be the cause of this polarization.
The critics are right if they mean that there wouldn’t have been room for polarization if it weren’t for rapid economic growth. However, although economic development is bound to result in polarization, past administrations have not made any effort to correct the phenomenon, and it might be unfair for the Sogang School to be held accountable for its policy 20 years ago.
Moreover, it is improper to say that Korea’s rapid economic development was the accomplishment and responsibility of the Sogang School alone. In fact, the Sogang School is not a sect that was formed based on a certain ideology or philosophy. Among the economists who worked for the government in the 1970s and 1980s, those who taught at Sogang University were great in both number and prominence. The most notable members of the school were Nam Duck-woo, Kim Man-je and Lee Seung-yun. They all studied in the United States, and upon returning to Korea, they advocated adopting a market economy and pursuing gradual reform. At the time, the underlying tone of national policy was in giving priority to economic growth by concentrating national resources on certain select fields, so they implemented economic policies within that framework.
The appointment of Professor Nam Duck-woo to the post of the Minister of Finance in 1969 surprised everybody. Mr. Nam had never participated in the election campaign for the ruling party or taken the initiative in supporting government policies. He is said to have been chosen because as a member of the policy evaluation committee, he had quietly criticized economic policies but always proposed alternatives. When the soft-spoken professor was named to serve in the enormously powerful position of finance minister, people thought that he could last six months if he were lucky. Finance Ministry officials initially were unlwelcoming of Mr. Nam’s appointment.
Once he came into office, however, Mr. Nam showed his brilliance. He skillfully managed relationships with other ministries and expertly handled the job within the finance ministry. He appeased the elite career bureaucrats and obtained their assistance. Of course, the full support of the president certainly helped, but he smoothly sailed through the rough sea of politics. He did not stubbornly hold on to what he thought was right and avoided being shipwrecked. He would set a direction and pursue a project, and when he met an obstacle, he would detour or stop to rest. He also adopted a strategy of tossing away anything that was not critical to the general trend. He kept in constant contact with politicians and the media and expanded his allies.
Mr. Nam, who was once expected to last only six months, stayed in the office for more than five years. He was then was elevated to deputy prime minister and served in the post for more than four years. No other person in Korean history has held the offices of the deputy prime minister and the finance minister for a total of 10 years. Despite turbulences such as the first oil shock, the Korean economy saw its most dynamic growth during his tenure.
Partly encouraged by the success of Mr. Nam, a series of pragmatic Sogang University professors were appointed to government posts. Professor Kim Man-je served as the director of the Korea Development Institute for over 10 years. He was named deputy prime minister after serving as minister of finance. Mr. Kim also accomplished major projects, including the clearance of insolvent companies, by cleverly outmaneuvering overconfident economic officials.
Those two are considered successful cases. Professor Lee Seung-yun became an assemblyman and then served as the minister of finance and the deputy prime minister, but he did not last very long, due to the political surroundings of the time. In the past, scholars participated in the government for long periods and made great contributions. Why can’t they perform as well now? Is it because they are trying their best but are not competent enough? Has the world changed? Or maybe there are too many obstructionists. Economists are said to look further out, make roadmaps and work more systematically, so we might have to wait a little longer for the outcome of their policies.
In order to implement a policy, the government is bound to meet obstacles. When the country was going through rapid growth, we had our share of hindrances. Most notably, the Seoul-Busan Expressway construction project and the founding of POSCO met with great opposition. A successful policy was achieved after overcoming such opposition. We cannot achieve anything if we blame others for mistakes or call the past accountable.
Mr. Nam reportedly treated the controversy over the Sogang School’s responsibility for social polarization lightly, calling the theory “a college student-level essay.” However, he needs to let people know what kind of power those economists had in the government and what made them thrive.
Today, many university professors are providing their expertise for the government in a wide range of areas. I wonder how they will be evaluated 20 years from now.

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

by Choi Woo-suk
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