[Viewpoint]Does size matter?‘I would like to make the Republic of Korea a country made up of several Singapores and Finlands,” said Lee Hoi-chang describing his grand vision of national reform in an interview with the Joongang Ilbo.
At the time, Lee was campaigning inside a local market, dressed simply in a humble jacket, but his dream was anything but simple. He said South Korea needs national reconstruction that looks 50 years ahead. If he becomes president, he promised to give local governments the freedom to compete in the world as if they were city-states with virtually sovereign power. He proposed a federation made up of many small yet powerful entities.
Under this plan, he would use his five years in office to revise the Constitution to put in place the direction and framework for a federation of small regional powers.
I do not know how well-prepared Lee was when he proposed this grand vision of transforming the country over the next half century. He might have spent many sleepless nights contemplating the future and coming up with a substantial plan. But it could also just be the fancy wordplay of a veteran politician running for the third time and desperate to finally win.
Nevertheless, Lee’s national reconstruction pledge is notable during this pathetic election campaign. Some candidates make groundless promises just to cheat the people, while others launch negative attacks on their rivals. Lee’s promise is the closest thing to a vision on offer.
What Lee is desperately hoping, of course, is that he will be elected president as a result of a sensational last-minute turnabout. If everything goes as reasonable forecasts based on common sense and scientific data suggest, then he does not have much of a chance. Following logic, he might even give up before the election. Still, no matter what the outcome may be, Lee has fulfilled his role by presenting a meaningful vision in the midst of a chaotic mess.
There was a time when countries aspired to be small but strong. In the competitive age of globalization, small, powerful nations such as Finland, Singapore, Ireland and Denmark are leaders. These diminutive countries have been recognized as role models because they excel not only in terms of competitiveness but also in transparency, having relatively little corruption and offering a good quality of life.
However, these countries have a population of only about 5 million. With 10 times that, Korea is fundamentally different. A population of 5 million is the perfect size to operate as a single communal entity. A social consensus, such as an agreement among labor unions, management and government, can be facilitated easily and can respond to changes quickly and flexibly. Also, the opportunity cost for trial and error is small, so a small country can afford innovate. However, no matter how great a dress looks, a grownup cannot wear a child’s clothing.
So we pay attention to the middle powers now. We can aim at the European Big Four, namely Germany, Britain, France and Italy, which are similar to Korea in size. However, these countries are also caught in the size trap. Because of the social friction that can accompany reform, changes may be slow and expensive. French President Nicholas Sarkozy is showing that he has a strong desire for reform, but it is too early to see if he will succeed or be too optimistic.
There is another way. Kenichi Ohmae proposes “region-states” as a solution. The world-renowned Japanese business consultant and economic commentator emphasized in his book “The Next Global Stage” that the time for competing as a nation-state is over. The center of global competition, he argues, has already moved on to the region-state. What determines the fate of a country in the era of globalization depends on having smaller region states within its borders that communicate effectively and flexibly with the rest of the world.
I cannot be sure that Lee got a hint from Ohmae’s theory. But putting aside whether it is possible to have a federation in a small country like Korea, Lee’s promise is noteworthy for the fact that he proposed a national vision looking 50 years ahead, while others are offering just short-term promises.
I wonder what other candidates can offer as a long-term vision.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok