[Viewpoint] Talks before taxes

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[Viewpoint] Talks before taxes

The president should have put the topic of unification on the table for candid discussion before raising the issues of money and a unification tax. Those asked to pay for the tax are entitled to know why they have to pay.

Maybe the topic slipped his mind because no one would argue over the necessity and eventuality of unification. And someone who values practicality over anything else may have wanted to get straight down to business by tackling the most sensitive issue of funding.

Whatever his reasons were, he brought up the grave issue of raising a tax to fund unification costs in a way that was too no-nonsense, too businesslike. In fact, he was a bit coarse.

The comment - presented during the annual presidential Liberation Day address - thus dropped out of the clear blue sky. In Hollywood terms, he cut to the chase.

But he cut too soon.

Taxation is not the only means to save up for unification. We can issue bonds, take on debt or raise a special-purpose fund. Public services charges can be increased to help raise a fund, or a lottery ticket dedicated to the cause could be created. The government could consider austerity in its budgeting or start seeking foreign loans or special aid programs. It can also sell public assets.

But the president left out all explanation of why he was raising the issue at this particular moment - especially amid heightened tension in the region - and pitched the tax as if it was the only way to finance unification.

It is no wonder the talk came across as sudden and tactless. The proposal even raised the eyebrows of officials at the Blue House. The Ministries of Unification, Planning and Budget, and Strategy and Finance also seemed to have heard it for the first time in the president’s televised address. It’s no wonder the public was utterly confounded. But despite his indelicate presentation, the president should be credited for raising public awareness of unification. To most of the Korean population, unification has never been an issue for today. It is more of a romantic dream, as reflected in the song lyric, “Even in our dreams, we dream of unification,” which implies that unification is something that will never happen in our lifetimes.

The government is no different in its mindset. Unification is strictly the problem of the Unification Ministry. Other ministries and government agencies have no real concern with the matter. In an ambitious report to the president in June about national strategies and focuses for the next three decades, unification was not mentioned at all. If you think about it, unification should have been at the top of the list when officials visualized the country’s future over the next 30 years. Nothing can be the same if unification takes place.

I took note of one phrase in the president’s speech - “from now on.”

“We must, from now on, think about realistic means to prepare for the day [unification],” he said, suggesting the creation of a unification tax.

I want to believe he intentionally used those words to underscore our general indifference to the issue of unification. He has created an important awareness of unification to his government and public.

The circumstances are ripe. The North Korean regime is in its worst and most complicated state ever. Kim Jong-il’s health is deteriorating fast, and whether the leader’s power basis will be solid during a hereditary succession, remains unclear. The country’s economic system is in tatters. North Korea is shunned by the international community due to its nuclear program and its attack on the South Korean naval ship. The risk and uncertainties surrounding North Korea are at their peak.

After such a long time, unification will bring full justice. Its benefits will eclipse its cost. The expenditure will ebb and, one day, come to an end. But benefits will be perpetual as long as this land continues to exist. To put it simply, the later unification happens, the greater the cost will be while reducing the time we can enjoy the benefits. In the meantime, the burden of sustaining a divided land will continue to weigh on our lives. A proper and swift unification will be that advantageous.

We must talk about what should come first - sovereignty or coalition - in the process of unifying the two different states. We should debate whether a black-and-white approach or a composite of ideas is better for our national interest. We must also discuss what the common goal of a unified nation should be.

We can all differ in our understanding of the circumstances and preparation methods. But “from now on” we should put all those ideas and perspectives on the table for serious discussion. In the context of shedding light on the unification theme as “today” and “our” matters of concern, the president’s proposal of a unification tax can be considered well-timed. But he should have brought up unification before tax. It’s a pity that the bigger idea of unification has been blotted out by a controversy over a new tax.

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

by Cho Dong-ho
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