[VIEWPOINT]Gutless Uri ignores pension plan’s debtKoreans are like travellers who think they see a light when the end of the tunnel is still far away. Most Asians who end up losing all the money in their pockets at casinos in Las Vegas are Koreans. It is hard to find a Korean who stops gambling and says, “I enjoyed myself today,” whether losing or winning. The recent social stir created by the Sea Story video slot machines has something to do with this Korean psychology. That temperament is why Korean society is often confronting a crisis. Even if there were people who saw signs of a looming crisis and sounded an alarm, Koreans wouldn’t listen to them, thinking it couldn’t be true. They regret it afterward.
The foreign exchange crisis of 1997 was also caused by the stubbornness of the Korean people.
The enormity of the national pension system problem is so catastrophic that the foreign exchange crisis might not match it.
Nevertheless, it seems that no one is willing to address the problem. If an ordinary salaried man is burdened with a debt of 80,000 won ($83) per day, he might be forced to apply for bankruptcy. Let’s suppose that Korea’s representative big businesses, Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor, were to suffer a deficit of 800 million won a day. What would happen to them? At best, they would survive only a few years.
The national pension system is accumulating debt of 80 billion won per day, or 30 trillion won per year. In the year 2010, the debt will grow to 327 trillion won and the accumulated debt in 2020 will reach 864 trillion won.
If the National Pension Corporation was a private business, its management might have restructured and established measures to cut down on costs. However, our political community is keeping silent on this urgent national problem. Let’s put aside the opposition, because the reason for its existence lies in opposing and checking the government. But what does the governing party do nowadays?
On Aug. 20, President Roh Moo-hyun had a luncheon meeting with the leadership of the governing party. Mr. Roh asked Uri Party leaders to pass the pending reform bill of the National Pension Corporation. Suddenly the hall where the luncheon was held was shrouded with silence. In the end, the party leaders failed to make any response, as if they didn’t hear what the president told them. In printed material prepared for an Uri Party workshop that opened last Thursday, there were explanations on various pending bills awaiting deliberation at the current plenary session of the National Assembly, but the draft reform bill for the national pension system was nowhere to be found. The leadership of the governing party fully understands the seriousness of the national pension system.
Kim Geun-tae, the chairman of the Uri Party, said, “If the current national pension system is implemented without reform, Koreans will have to pay 30 percent of their income as an insurance premium 20 years from now. It will be unethical if we pass on such an enormous amount of debt.”
However, Kang Bong-kyun, the policy chief of the Uri Party, and Je Jong-geel, the head of the Fifth Policy Coordination Committee of the party, blurred the point of their remarks by saying, “We should change the national pension system, but there was not enough discussion within the party.”
The reaction from Kim Han-gill, the floor leader, was surprising. He said, “I have not been briefed from the government on it officially.” I asked the Health and Welfare Ministry whether it gave explanations to “the Uri Party leadership.” The ministry said that Ryu Si-min, minister of health and welfare, requested a meeting with Mr. Kim but had not been able to meet him so far. When Byun Jae-jin, vice minister of health and welfare, requested a meeting with Mr. Kim, he declined politely by saying, “If that is the topic, I am fully aware of the problems involved.”
It is difficult to say why the party is not willing to pass the bill although it knows there is a clear problem and why Mr. Kim won’t meet with the health minister. It means the party thinks there is no reason to forcibly pass an unpopular policy when the presidential election is around the corner. The party is caught in the trap of an opinion poll.
When people are asked, “Would you mind if you have to pay more insurance premiums, while the amount of pension you receive after retirement is reduced?” most of them would say “no.” If they change the questionnaire and ask, “If things go on like this, the pension fund dries up soon and you are not able to get any pension, would it be okay to you?” People will be greatly surprised and say, “What nonsense is this?” The governing party should behave in a responsible manner. It must be judged by the results it has accomplished, after accomplishing the responsibility of managing state affairs. Perhaps the party does not like President Roh because he urged the party to reform the national pension system, which will make the party lose votes toward the end of his term, or is unwilling to help the hateful Ryu Si-min. It should get rid of such narrow-mindedness as soon as possible.
With such small-minded political calculations, it cannot win the big battle. People will be moved if the party sincerely devotes all its energy to state affairs, instead of studying the face of the people. If the governing party claims it will regain power in the next presidential election after neglecting the duty of the governing party, it will be a shameless act. The party’s bill that should have passed the Assembly, even by using physical power, was not the private school law but the national pension law.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Du-woo