Aiming for another miraclePresident Park Geun-hye drew compliments for her inauguration speech last month that promised an era of new hope to people weary from the prolonged global economic slowdown and escalated threats from nuclear-armed North Korea. She whipped up support for her ambition to turn today’s challenges into the momentum for a new “Miracle on the Han River” — an epithet South Korea has proudly enjoyed for its remarkable progress in industrialization and democratization through the strong work and perseverance of its people. She recycled a familiar tune and lyrics to describe a vision and goal that can move and inspire the people to move toward a brighter future.
To create the foundation for a second Miracle on the Han, a cool appraisal of the trajectory of the last half-century is necessary first. The first miracle that panned out under the president’s father Park Chung Hee, who ruled for most of the 1960s and 1970s, was possible because everyone was focused on the singular goal of industrialization. Democracy was finally achieved after many years of dictatorship. But President Park must understand that the conditions and circumstances that produced the drive for industrialization and democratization can hardly be recognizable in today’s highly advanced Korea, however much it may long for another miracle and a monumental boost.
In the post-war 1960s, South Korea was united by the wish to escape poverty and an outdated agrarian economy through modernization and industrialization. At the time, it had few competitors and many allies in its endeavor to rebuild the nation offering aid and finances.The hard-working and authoritarian leadership of Park Chung Hee whipped the country in a nonstop march forward, and the rags-to-riches miracle on the Han became a growth model for a developing economy. But the experiment of state-guided capitalism exposed serious flaws and limits. Its biggest failure was to deny the freedoms of democracy enjoyed around the world at the time. We were only able to comfortably congratulate ourselves on our achievements after democracy finally took root in 1987.
South Korea then joined the advanced ranks of the global community and today shares various problems suffered by advanced economies today: Intense international competition, a rapidly aging population, low fertility rate and job losses due to technology development. It also must come up with solutions to tricky problems like wealth polarization through public consensus and democratic procedures amid rising grassroots political participation. The broad and general opinion of the public has been gauged during presidential campaign and reflected in the platforms of major ruling and opposition parties during general elections.
President Park expressed the will and means to address the challenges of both today and the future, which will undoubtedly require many changes and reforms. She emphasized that a key to taking the lead in international competition and creating more jobs is to pursue an innovative economy that would merge science and technology, culture and industry and break down barriers among different industries. At the same time, she would democratize the economy so that benefits would more evenly trickle down, especially to small companies and temporary workers. Park’s government will use its resources to invest in the creative power of the Korean people to better brace for the age of “soft power.” Her promise to deliver another miracle on the Han by creating a society where people can live with greater justice and happiness, in particular, drew a big applause from the public. But she stopped short of mentioning the factor in Korean politics that could pose the biggest stumbling block to her new drive.
Capitalism, as the president herself remarked, is being challenged since the global financial crisis. The representative democracy is also in trouble in many spots around the world. The transition to democracy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa has been bumpy, and traditional democracies in European countries like Greece have been battered by political insecurity. U.S. politics, once a model, has entered an age of paralyzing discord that even affects the country’s credit rating. South Korea’s endeavors in advancing its democratic system have mostly disappointed the people. We cannot easily expect a second miracle without fixing what ails our democracy.
Park’s inaugural address was simple, eloquent and persuasive. She touched on a variety of issues to cover all economic, social and cultural areas. But strangely, she made no mention of our politics. No matter how competent and efficient bureaucrats and the administration may be, nothing can substitute for politics in a democracy. Even with a great outline and roadmap toward creating an inventive economy and a second miracle, administrative efforts alone cannot achieve the goal without the involvement of politics.
Politics cannot be overlooked particularly when reforms are urgently needed in our democratic system. The late Park Chung Hee made the Miracle on the Han possible through success in industrialization. His daughter should take aim at pushing democratization and industrialization to new levels to accomplish yet another miracle for the country.