The ugly face of populism in Korea

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The ugly face of populism in Korea


The earliest documented case of populism in the West was in ancient Rome. Brothers Gaius Gracchus and Tiberius Gracchus, Roman politicians in the second century B.C., distributed land to citizens and sold corn at below-market prices to secure support for their reforms. The Romans, however, thought that they were becoming dictators and sentenced them to death.

Despite this tragic beginning, populism has been used by politicians regardless of location or era. Perhaps the most famous populist politicians were Argentinian President Juan Peron and first lady Eva Peron. President Peron seized one-third of the country’s land and distributed it to the working class. Some of his populist policies, however, were just absurd. He once had a television manufacturing plant built 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) from the capital near Antarctica to spur decentralization.

As a leader, Eva Peron was not much different from her husband, yet she is considered the embodiment of populism. She was fond of saying she lived to serve the people of Argentina. When she visited the poor, she would bring truckloads of cash and scatter money around.

The Perons set the standard for a long line of populist politicians in Argentina. Peronist politicians have won eight of the last 10 elections. But what we are seeing now in Argentina is the ugly face of misdirected populism. When Argentinians organize a rally, protesters are given gifts of money or other valuables. Meanwhile, the current Fernandez administration imposes an export tax and controls prices to secure cheap supplies of bread and beef, which has resulted in farmers giving up cattle breeding and wheat farming because their products yield few profits. As a result, the South American country may soon face a shortage of beef and wheat.

Other countries have had populist policies as well. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had an unprecedented medical policy and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez used the money made from selling off the country’s enormous petroleum resources for his populist policies.

In Korea, the debate over populist policies for half-priced tuition and free school meals have intensified. But before we either accept or dismiss these ideas, we need to seriously review whether they are desirable welfare policies or populist pork-barreling. Ultimately, we have to ensure that Korea does not repeat the precedent set by Argentina, where populism spun out of control.

*The writer is a senior international affairs reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Nam Jeong-ho
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