[Viewpoint] As good as it gets?

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[Viewpoint] As good as it gets?

We live in a pretty good country. Some may have doubts since not a day goes by without frustrating and demoralizing news. But we do. I am saying this without any political implication. From the outsider’s view, there are many things this country should be thankful for: the mountains, water, electricity, medical services and public transportation.

It is not a random list. Mountains are natural gifts. Water and electricity are resources we produce and consume. Medical and transportation services are our invention.

Few countries are bestowed with rich trekking mountains encircling major cities and urban communities. Few also have the comfort and luxury of water and electricity consumption at cheap rates as we do. Our public health insurance policy is envied by most countries. Few cities offer accessible and comfortable subway and bus transportation services.

There is no end if you want to see the bad side of life and you can go blind if you seek out only the bright side. But one more thing we can be proud of in this country is our sovereign credit rating.

Our rating has been heading up amidst global economic turbulence since 2008. Only a handful of other countries - Australia, Chile, the Czech Republic, Israel, Turkey and Korea - got their sovereign ratings upgraded during the last few years. Most were downgraded. We would have all jumped up and down if this were a World Cup match. A cut in credit rating in a tiny country like ours would have caused upheavals in our everyday lives.

Korea’s credit rating rose because of its growth pace and fit public finance. So far, the economy is faring not too badly. According to rating agency Moody’s, Korea is ahead of Japan, the European Union and the United States in growth performance from 2005 to 2011 and for the outlook until 2017. It’s a pretty big deal to beat other advanced economies in your growth rate by more than 1 percentage point. Our growth in the 3 percent range has slowed from the staggering pace of the past, but few other economies that generate an economy of our size expand at such a rate.

Public finances stand out most of all. Our public debt compared with other economies is a manageable size. Moody’s concluded that the Seoul government has more than enough room for maneuver in fiscal policy.

But strictly speaking, how good and promising is this country? For one, it is the most rapidly aging society with too few newborns. Decent jobs are no longer available, and job-seekers have to settle for part-time or irregular work to make a living. Those who open their own businesses can hardly sustain them for a year. The nation may be relatively less in debt, but the low-income class is head over heels in debt. The young generation, which never experienced the real military regime of strongman Park Chung Hee, lashes out at President Lee Myung-bak for being domineering. The nation shares the world’s most fortified border with an erratic, nuclear-armed regime.

So on what guidelines should we evaluate presidential candidates who hope to run the country for the next five years? Since the April legislative election, opposition candidates have also emphasized the need for growth along with social welfare. No candidate can win votes without envisioning ways to raise its economic outlook. The social welfare debate is possible because past governments have kept the economy growing without ruining public finances.

Some may ask why the country couldn’t think of offering better social benefits before, but that may be why we still have fiscal room to maneuver. The governments under presidents Lee Myung-bak, Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam, Roh Tae-woo, Chun Doo Hwan and Park Chung Hee have all contributed to what Korea is today. Everyone now promises more and better welfare, but we must draw the line. We cannot end up like Greece. This country, too, sits on a myriad of problems: an aging society, a high level of household debt, income polarization, scant jobs and inter-Korean issues.

Presidential candidates are expected to make not-too-different rosy promises. The separation between left and right will necessarily blur. What is important is their vision for the future. They must be concrete and detailed. They must tell us specifically how they would uphold or better our proud legacies of mountains, water, utilities, services, growth, sound public finances and a good sovereign credit rating. Voters will choose the vision that is most feasible.

*The author is the editor in chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Su-gil

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