[Viewpoint] What happened to Korean frugality?

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[Viewpoint] What happened to Korean frugality?

There’s a stench in the air that can not be evaded: public expenditures piled up like garbage. You can smell it in just about any public facility or event hall. Officials are competing to lavishly outfit their offices. The streets are gaudily decorated. Perfectly good pavement and sidewalks are being torn up and replaced to use up public budgets. Even sidewalks that get no traffic are coated with plastic substances and made friendly for the blind. Subway stations must be deluxe. Who wants to look at concrete or plaster when you can dig into your budget and buy expensive granite or marble?

That’s the issue: money. Public facilities and events cost money. The money comes from tax revenues derived from the working class’ hard work. Public servants use tax revenue as if they were conducting an experiment or have been ordered to be creative and not practical. The beneficiaries are just a few businessmen.

“The entire country is tainted with corruption,” President Lee Myung-bak said last weekend.

The essence of public corruption in Korea is the waste of taxpayers’ money. When compared to the United States, Korea’s extravagance and profligacy is obvious. The center of Washington D.C. is the National Mall, a long green space running from the Lincoln Memorial to Capitol Hill. It is known as the front yard of the country. Numerous events take place there every year, including the president’s inauguration. About 30 million tourists visit the mall every year.

At the end of May, I took a stroll there. Young men and women were enjoying a softball game. But when I took a closer look, I noticed the lawns were poorly maintained and weedy.

The mall is known as a great place to exercise. The sidewalks alongside the lawns were made of concrete. Runners were energetically jogging on the hard, cracked walks. The area in front of the Smithsonian Institution was dirt and pebbles. No one felt the need for urethane coating.

I was accompanied by a 51-year-old businessman who frequently visits Seoul and Washington. I asked him about why there was no urethane coating on the sidewalks of such an important American landmark.

“There is a limited budget,” he replied. “Investment for joggers is not the priority. Spending tax money to support the working class is the priority.”

My companion said he used to run on the luxurious jogging course along Yangjae Stream in Seoul, which is coated with soft urethane.

“I can no longer run in Washington,” he said. “I am worried about my knees if I run here.”

The mall is managed by the U.S. National Park Service. In 2009, President Barack Obama ordered a refurbishment. The budget was $200 million, but the House of Representative brutally slashed it. After several delays, repairs began last October on the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. But sprucing up the lawns and repairing the sidewalks have yet to start.

I got on a train at the Smithsonian Metro station. All the stations there have the same architectural styles. They are the 1976 creation of American architect Harry Weese. High ceilings and open spaces are their trademarks. They are known for their practicality. But they are very modest compared to the subway stations of Seoul. The platforms are dimly lighted. It’s hard to read a book there. The walls are concrete, with none of Korea’s flashing signboards. The architecture is very quiet.

After I returned to Seoul, I got on the subway at Guryong Station in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. Marble proliferates at the entrance. A public table is covered with glass. Every day, about 3,600 people use the station, which cost 55 billion won ($51.2 million) to build.

A neighborhood resident, who identified himself as a retired teacher in his 60s, was scathing.

“We never asked for such a luxurious station,” he said. “The civil servants recklessly spent tax money. Construction companies were undoubtedly the biggest beneficiaries.”

Wasting tax money has reached a dangerous level. It cost 85.3 billion won to build the Wolmi Galaxy Rail connecting Wolmi Island and Incheon Station. And because the Incheon Metropolitan Government decided to scrap the project due to safety concerns, it will cost another 25 billion won to demolish it. The rapid transit system in Yongin is another example of tens of billions of won in tax money utterly wasted. And the new Seongnam City Hall, which cost 322.2 billion won, is covered in glass. People who work there can’t stand the heat.

The public gets outraged when it reads of such deplorable situations. They say mayors and governors who recklessly spend tax money should be treated like criminals.

The spirit of frugality has vanished from the civil servants’ consciousness. The situation has become so serious that tax payers need to start a monitoring system on tax spending.

Many Koreans are political commentators, but they are very insensitive to real-life problems. Their tax money is being wasted everywhere, but they are ignorant of it. Such indifference fuels the civil servants’ evil practice of spending tax revenues any way they please.

We stood up to a dictator and pulled him down. That kind of passion is needed to monitor tax spending. Public projects that are sugarcoated with slogans of welfare, convenience and being environmentally friendly must be thoroughly examined.

Supervision of tax spending is the duty of a world-class citizen.

*The writer is executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Bo-gyoon
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