[Viewpoint] Playing games on the lunch issue

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[Viewpoint] Playing games on the lunch issue

I once asked some wives of foreign ambassadors what they wanted to take from Korea when they returned home. Strangely, the majority answered they wanted to take Korean coffee vending machines and health insurance. A few actually bought and packed a small vending machine onto their moving vans. Sadly, they have no way of taking Korean health insurance back to their home countries. It is strange that, out of all things, Korean instant coffee and insurance coverage are the envy of foreigners.

A friend of mine collapsed from a heart attack during a business trip to Japan and was taken to a university hospital in Tokyo. Doctors skillfully performed an angioplasty to open a blocked artery and place a stent inside its walls. The surgery saved my friend’s life, but cost him a fortune. The bill for a foreign patient was 50 million won ($43,000). But the price tag might not be jaw-dropping to a foreigner who has experienced hospitals abroad. The same surgery would have cost over 100 million won in the United States. In Korea, the bill would come to around 6 million won, but would be about half that if you are insured. So the mystery is solved. It’s no wonder that Korean health coverage is so admired.

We take for granted, however, that we live in such agreeable circumstances, and few care that it comes at the expense of a ballooning deficit. Last year, the health insurance deficit hit 1.7 trillion won. It is simple economics that a deficit happens when you put in a little and spend a lot. Without a substantial hike in premiums, the system cannot last. But nobody dares to make such a proposal because to do so would be political suicide. Our generous health insurance system takes a toll on other welfare benefits. Nearly 3 million are without jobs, but unemployment policies cover only a handful, providing a paltry 30 percent of the cost of living. Pensions also cover just 20 percent of the senior population.

This is the state of a country that is proud of having joined the ranks of the wealthy. Except for deficit-ridden health coverage, our welfare system is lagging. European countries completed a social welfare system when per capita income reached $10,000. Even some Latin American societies boast a better a welfare system than ours. This is not an issue of pride, but of negligence and political incompetence.

Welfare refers to the four major insurance policies of health care, unemployment, pension and occupational safety, as well as to social services and protections for the poor. In this regard, Korea is below average when compared to other members of the OECD. It is most imperative that the entire population be entitled to the four major areas of insurance coverage and increase social services and benefits to the elderly, women, teenagers and children who need additional care. We have numerous compelling welfare tasks to take on.

So where does the controversial political debate over free school lunches fit into all of this? It should be at the tail end of the list. Yet the main opposition Democratic Party has succeeded in emphasizing a low priority policy. It was a catchy political pitch. The word “free” has grasped public attention and drove home one of the fundamental necessities by referring to “meals.” I commend the Democratic Party for packaging free school lunches as a social welfare service issue and including welfare in its election platform. But it is cowardly to ignite a welfare reform debate with a risk-free and simple issue like free school meals. A reform of the four major insurance policies would spark an avalanche of opposition at a time when many people are still doubtful of establishing a social welfare system. Free school lunches are an easy sell to voters with their appeal to helping the poor through universal coverage. But such a strategy is too easy and expedient a political tool from a liberal party that should naturally place general welfare at the top of its agenda.

The ruling Grand National Party is equally shallow for playing along with the DP’s childish game. It is bound for a zugzwang, a position from which a good move is impossible. Its poor defensive strategy suggests that the party and conservative camp is without a solid strategy on welfare. The GNP tried to counter the offensive by offering “free child care” and “increased eligibility for free school meals,” but this came too late to turn the tide. Conservatives have no choice but to buy the liberal camp’s proposal to give out free school meals even to the children from richer families no matter how absurd it may sound. Social welfare systems have progressed in such ways. The mechanism - liberals attack and the conservative oblige - has long been established in welfare policy making in Europe. Conservatives may be thankful liberals have not attempted to touch the body of welfare issues. But a populist pitch for free meals has the liberals on the offensive and the strategy-less conservatives on the defensive. This is a shameful way to open the debate on a complicated welfare agenda.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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