[Viewpoint]Wipe that smile from your facePresident Roh Moo-hyun said recently he was so happy these days that he could hardly stop smiling. The occasion was a grand Buddhist prayer meeting for national unity held Monday at Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul.
“The atmosphere of today’s meeting is very amicable,” Roh said. “I feel comfortable and warm being here today. I can hardly stop smiling.”
Why does the president feel so happy? Is it because his approval ratings have begun to climb since the conclusion of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement negotiations? Is it because of the infighting between the two leading presidential hopefuls of the opposition Grand National Party? Is it due to his self-confidence, that he believes he can do away with any challenge against him even though he is a lame duck? Is it because the conservative media outlets have eased their attacks on him? Is it because the real estate market has hit its ceiling and begun to decline? Or because of the scandal involving an owner of a conglomerate, which could be a chance to heighten the fight against the socially privileged few?
In front of Buddhist priests, the president said, “Creating a balanced society in which all people live together well is the intention of the progressives and the ultimate goal of democracy.”
He also said, “Building a ‘competitive welfare state’ means creating a place where every citizen can enjoy a healthy and stable life without worrying about old age and housing, and where the opportunities for education are open to all children equally.”
I agree with him 100 percent. However, do we live in such a society?
According to a survey conducted by the New Economics Foundation of the United Kingdom in July 2006, the happiness index of South Korean people was 102nd out of 178 countries surveyed ― even below China, which ranked 82nd. In a poll conducted in Korea last November, the happiness score for Korean people was 69 points out of 100.
According to the latest data from the Korea National Statistical Office, 1.27 million people idle away their time without working. If we add the number of job seekers, students who prepare for exams at educational institutes and those who wait for military conscription, the number grows to 2.04 million.
Even after graduating from universities, finding a job is as difficult as fitting a camel through the eye of a needle. After reaching the age of 40, people begin to fear being fired. The gap between the minority of people who fare well and the majority who do not grows wider all the time.
The polarization of education is gradually getting serious as the financial burden of private education snowballs. People who have given up hope in Korea’s educational system have become “educational refugees” who wander about abroad.
Moreover, Korea’s future is not bright, either. Korea’s economy, sandwiched between China and Japan, is gradually losing its foothold. Although there are worries that Korea’s economy could be subordinated to China one day, we don’t have any proper countermeasures. Since the tendency of our students to avoid engineering and technology studies keeps getting stronger, it is not easy to revive our economy through the development of technology and creativity.
What about the military situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula? As China and Japan have begun to compete in a full-swing military buildup, the diplomatic and security situation in the region is deteriorating rapidly. The Korea-U.S. alliance is not the same as it used to be, because North Korea ridicules South Korea at its will while it brandishes nuclear weapons in one hand. It only wants to use South Korea as a cash dispenser, under the cloak of exchange and cooperation.
Ricardo Lagos, the Chilean president who resigned in March of last year, proclaimed that he belonged to the progressives. His approval rating at the end of his term was above 70 percent. But he had never said he was happy. Instead he always expressed worries about shortages and insufficiencies. He used to say, “It does not matter whether it is progressivism or conservatism as long as the fruits of growth are distributed evenly to the people.” He pursued implementing a working welfare system, not a pork-barrel one, by doling out small amounts for political advantage at the sacrifice of public-sector expenditures.
In particular, he put all of his energy into expanding job opportunities for women. As a result, the poverty rate dropped to 18 percent from 39 percent in 10 years.
A president is both a human being and a politician. He can also be in a good mood or feel bad. At official functions, not in private occasions, I think there is only one time the president should say he is so happy that he can hardly stop smiling. That is when the people feel that way. Shouldn’t the last person to smile among all of the people be the president?
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok