[Viewpoint] Very hard to pin down

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[Viewpoint] Very hard to pin down

The Korean translation of “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” by Harvard University Prof. Michael Sandel has sold 1.2 million copies in the country. The Korean publisher said the English version of the book sold about 100,000 copies at the most around the world.

Ahead of the presidential election, “economic democratization” has become one of the most important topics. Of all the countries that will have presidential elections this year, Korea is the only one in which both the ruling and opposition parties are trying to wrest the concept of economic democratization from the other side and make it their own.

There is a certain rightness in the idea of “justice” producing a best seller and a season in which politicians compete to win a presidential victory with pledges of economic democratization. Whether justice and economic democratization are the zeitgeist of Korea 2012, or a mere reaction to the disappointment at our current administration, will be revealed over time.

Although justice and economic democratization would appear to be issues everyone understands well, they are actually difficult topics that no one can give clear answers about. In his lectures and book, Sandel concludes that there is no single idea of justice. So what about economic democratization?

Recently, I had a chance to talk with progressive scholars on the topic. Asked what economic democratization is, they said it is easier to talk about specific examples than general concepts. Most of the examples they brought up were related to conglomerates. The first example was the argument that owners of large business groups must face sterner punishments for embezzlement and breach of trust. One scholar said he emphasized that idea during a debate at the Saenuri Party.

Perhaps because of his idea, the Saenuri Party recently proposed a bill that economic crimes will be punished with actual imprisonments and without the possibility of suspended sentences. The Democratic United Party may have thought that it lost the initiative on that idea.

I asked a key official of the Saenuri Party what economic democratization is. He gave an honest answer. “We haven’t reached a conclusion yet, so that’s why we are under a gag order.”

Economic democratization is listed as the first among presidential candidate Park Geun-hye’s pledges and the party has proposed a bill on it, but there is no official position on what it actually is. It is a concept, shall we say, under construction. Kim Chong-in, who included a clause on economic democratization in the Constitution in 1987, is a co-chairman of Park’s presidential campaign. But the concept of economic democratization is still a work in progress a quarter-century later. No matter what conclusion they eventually reach, the debates in the political arena focus on reforming the conglomerates. There is another country where conglomerate reform has become a major item on the national agenda. It is Israel.

Although the problem is less serious than in Korea, economic power is concentrated in Israel, and protests have continued since last year over expensive housing, high prices, poor medical and education systems, and costly child care. A monopoly or oligopoly of a few conglomerates was considered part of the problem, and a Committee on Increasing Competitiveness in the Economy was established to reform conglomerates.

Economic democratization is a familiar term in Sweden. Following its achievement of political democracy, the country achieved social democracy based on a welfare system. But economic democracy has yet to be realized in Sweden, and there are now lots of protests over high prices and high unemployment in a slow economy.

In Korea, the demand for economic democratization and economic justice came for the first time after the June 29 Declaration in 1987. It was a period when all words were hyphenated with democratization. “When Economy Met Democratization” by Lee Chang-gyu, former chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo, is a book that recorded the period in great detail. What was it like when the economy met the idea of democratization for the first time?

“Various trials and errors that took place in the world of sudden democratization will be valuable lessons in the future,” the author wrote. “Through the period, the Korean people experienced through their own choice what kind of combination would be created with political democratization and economic prosperity.”

Developmental dictatorship ended. We are in a new second era of economic democratization, and demands are high that the democratization after the June 29 Declaration should be seen as true democratization.

There will never be a single definition of economic democratization, but one thing is clear. It is a process that we all search for together. There is no right answer: just the best choice in our situation.

*The author is the editor in chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Su-gil
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