[OUTLOOK]Actions mean more than wealthThe personal assets of high-ranking officials average about 1 billion won ($1.03 million), and 26 percent of them added more than 100 million won to their fortunes in the past year. In the eyes of the average citizen, they have accumulated and are earning an enormous amount of money. However, on second thought, it takes at least 20 years for a career civil servant to be promoted to a high-ranking position, and they are the elite of society. So we should not feel deprived because they are so well off.
In any society, the elite earn special rewards. That way, outstanding talents will be willing to pursue careers in public service. We cannot demand that they sacrifice and live humbly just because they hold public positions. They also need to educate their children and prepare for retirement. Therefore, unless they accumulated their wealth through unlawful measures, they should not be criticized just for being wealthy. The original purpose of the system was not to rank civil servants by the size of their fortunes. This runs the risk of spreading distrust of officials and a misguided egalitarianism. In that sense, the current system of disclosing public officials’ personal assets is problematic.
We need to pay special attention to the changes in the size of politicians’ assets. Considering the tendency that those who are well-off often go into politics, it might be only natural that politicians have considerable assets. However, those in the current administration are different. They were mostly activists and stayed out of power in the past, and so could not be able to accumulate a fortune. However, once they came into government or became National Assembly members, their assets increased by at least several tens of million won. In my opinion, it is fortunate for them to accumulate a fortune. As they are paid salaries, they must have realized that money can add up. After a few years, they will become men of means. Through the experience, they might be able to shed their ambiguous antagonism against the haves in society.
The problem is that they continue to direct attacks on the haves, even though their own assets are growing. They argue that Korean society is polarized into 20 percent of haves and 80 percent of have-nots, and blame the top 20 percent for the polarization. The average debt per household in Korea is 30 million won. With several tens of millions of won added to their assets in a year, they must fall into the top 20 percent. They blame the wealthy 20 percent, which includes themselves, and so are virtually saying that they are the exceptions and the others are the problem.
The correlation between a politician’s political direction and the size of their assets is very peculiar. Especially when rich politicians claim to be working for the poor, we question their sincerity.
Traditionally, the Republican Party in the United States is known to be a party of the rich. However, even the progressive Democratic Party has many wealthy members. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jay Rockefeller, John F. Kennedy and Al Gore all come from very wealthy families. John Kerry, who ran for the last presidential election as the Democratic candidate, has hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. He owns four mansions, each worth more than $5 million and even has a luxury yacht. It might be ironic in a sense that he represents the urban poor and the working class, as he leads an extravagant personal lifestyle. Does he have the body of a wealthy man and the mind of a poor man? Regardless of slogans, the aristocracy, or elitism of politics may be inevitable. However, it is hard to ask candidates to give up their fortunes and distribute them to the common people before entering politics. The size of personal assets is limited. We cannot tell rich politicians to dispose of their wealth and give it away before they enter politics. Instead, we should tell them to set a correct policy direction.
Just as rich politicians can represent the poor, those who are not rich can support a party of the rich. For example, many Republicans in the United States are low income earners. They are the ones who have the hope that if they work hard enough, they can become rich someday. They are ashamed of receiving government subsidies and want to live independently. Because there are many such supporters, the Republican Party’s influence is growing.
We cannot judge politicians simply by the size of their fortunes. No matter how much their assets might be, the sincerity of their arguments counts much more. If they pretend to represent the poor and pursue luxury or power in the name of those poor, that is a vice. In that case, election is only a game played by politicians deceiving citizens, just as President Roh Moo-hyun said.
I hope that the argument over social polarization is not such a sinful game they play.
* The writer is the chief editor of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk