[Viewpoint] Social equality can define Lee’s term

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[Viewpoint] Social equality can define Lee’s term

In the 17th century, the population of Seoul consisted of 10 percent nobility, 15 percent commoners and 75 percent servants.

By the first half of the 18th century, the makeup of the city’s demographic had drastically changed to 60 percent nobility, 10 percent commoners and 30 percent servants.

In the early 19th century, the number in the nobility increased even more, disrupting society and creating extreme confusion during the late Joseon Dynasty era. As the demand for decorative paintings by nobility at the time increased, the art field flourished, particularly in the areas of realistic landscape paintings and folk paintings.

While browsing through folk paintings from that era, I thought of today’s society and the current events shaping it. For former President Roh Moo-hyun, death was a highly advanced political act. His life and the hardships that people in Korea are going through today overlap in my mind with the tough life of commoners at the end of the Joseon Dynasty.

President Lee Myung-bak seems to focus his efforts on administering state affairs and governing the country, believing that the people will appreciate him in the end as long as he works hard. He seems to stay as far away as possible from politics.

That’s a complete reversal from Roh, who made even his own death a political act.

Roh’s most important political asset - his concern for balanced development and care for the underprivileged - is giving the incumbent president a hard time.

So now, we wait for Lee to participate in politics to resolve these issues.

Lee confidently said he had no rival in Korea. But he indeed has to compete with his deceased predecessor and state heads of other countries, including members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Lee was elected president in part because of his image as an expert on the economy, and he has successfully managed to battle the U.S.-sparked economic crisis to some extent.

But the country is still struggling with many issues, and we want to see the president work not only on the economy but also on the integration of society.

Social integration means ensuring that all people feel they are part of society. It means that people share the same values and vision, maintain good relations and enjoy equal opportunities. It also means working to narrow inequalities in the distribution of wealth.

To achieve this, the government’s major policies must be categorized into six major groups: personal income, the economy and employment, finance, education, health, and property and housing. Additionally, the government must employ some type of measuring device to evaluate each sector.

According to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, income disparity in five of those groups has worsened since the economic crisis broke out, and the country’s poverty rate is among the highest of all OECD members. The unemployment rate here surged to 7 percent during the economic crisis in 1998 and has steadily decreased. It now stands around 3 percent. But that figure doesn’t tell the whole story, as many people feel the situation is worse than it appears.

The ratio of household expenditures on private tutoring for children is problematic. Therefore, we must find a way to examine the differences in wages for people of various educational backgrounds to get a better handle on the problem, possibly through the creation of a new index. Korea and the OECD have some 20 indexes that can measure the level of social integration. Indexes aren’t everything, but they can help create a sense of urgency about an important issue.

At the same time, it’s clear that the government’s current policies to unify Korean society are not organized, and social integration isn’t getting nearly enough attention. One index shows that our social integration is below the average of OECD members. The gaps between economic classes are wide, and current policies aren’t addressing the issues.

In short, our policies to unify society are not managed very well, nor are they effectively implemented. Adding to the problem is the reality that there’s simply no good system to adjust these policies. For the president to say confidently that he has succeeded in integrating society, he must craft and present major policies in the six major fields. The policies should aim to improve the basic indexes and effectively implement new measures. And the government should consider adding a new committee on social integration, supervised by the president.

Lee should make a solid contribution to social integration during the remainder of his term. He must not govern the country as if he manages a company. He must be a good politician. Lee still has a chance to be remembered as the president who restored our economy and unified society.

I hope social integration, in addition to the economy, can come to symbolize Lee.

*The writer is a professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of Public Health. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Sohn Myung-sei
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