[Outlook]Sound economics

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[Outlook]Sound economics

The summit meeting was quite successful. Some say it was because North Korea’s nuclear program was not on the agenda. Relinquishing its nuclear ambitions is the North’s card for normalizing ties with the United States and receiving rewards.
Costs cannot worry us either, because South Korea’s economy has grown so much that we can now pave a road even for a village on a remote mountain. If the size of government projects for culture cities or innovation cities were reduced, we would have trillions won, or billions more dollars, available.
As an economist, I would like to focus on roles of the government and the market discussed in the summit meeting. The ultimate question of economics can be summarized as how the market and the government will divide their roles to get maximum benefits out of limited resources.
The economics of past 200 years concludes that the best way is for the private sector to make independent decisions in economic activities and for the government to manage the rules so that those activities will be carried out fairly and smoothly. This can be likened to the relationship between players and referees in a sporting event.
The same principle applies to economic cooperation between South and North Korea.
Easing military tension, which will reduce the risk of investing in North Korea, is something that only the government can do. Repairing railways and roads is also the responsibility of the government. To improve transportation, communication and customs are the same. The private sector cannot do those jobs on its own.
However, building a shipyard or developing tourism on Mount Baekdu is for the private sector to carry out. But as these projects were agreed upon in the summit meeting, they must be carried out without feasibility studies. These projects were being discussed even before the summit meeting.
Private companies have been interested in them for years, but they have not made the decision to pursue them for many reasons, including low profits. Now the leaders of the two Koreas have made an agreement so these projects must be carried out. North Korea will probably make more unreasonable demands. The South Korean government will have to provide subsidies, and that will increase the burden on the South Korean people.
Some may find it disturbing that I criticize a few projects when there were many other good agreements reached. But these projects show the South Korean government’s basic view on economic cooperation with the North.
In fact, in all the projects agreed upon, there is a vague guideline for the division of roles between the government and the market. The same is true with the agreement to complete the first step of construction at the Kaesong Industrial Complex earlier than planned and to start the second step. The Hyundai Asan Corporation and the Korea Land Corporation are the ones doing the industrial park project, not the government.
These companies have their reasons for managing the industrial park project in its first stages. The government cannot and should not agree to implement the project at a faster speed. After North Korea tested its nuclear bomb, there was pressure to halt that project. Then the government said it could not intervene because it was led by the private sector. But the government has now agreed to complete it at an earlier date.
Some maintain that these agreements will improve inter-Korean relations so there is no use in dividing the government and the market. But it is more important that economic cooperation between South and North Korea improves properly than quickly. Let’s say the improvement of economic cooperation between South and North Korea is of the utmost value so the government can lead economic projects. But there must be good reasons for the government to intervene in the market.
The government has said until now that it supported economic co-operation with the North in an attempt to induce North Korea to open its doors and reform its economy. But that no longer sounds like enough. When providing assistance, the supporter must make sure that the party that receives assistance tries to stand on its own. But the president said we should not mention this in the summit meeting.
Six months ago, at an event for businessmen in the fisheries industry, the president said the government would provide support if need be, but what is most important is their own will and efforts.
One of President Roh’s strengths is that he is not afraid to say what he needs to say. That he could not say what he had to say to Kim Jong-il is what is most regrettable about the meeting.

*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Jo Dong-ho

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