Handling conflict

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Handling conflict

A few social controversies have arisen, testing the Park Geun-hye administration’s instincts and ability to weather discord. The decision to shut down the money-losing Jinju Medical Center in South Gyeongsang has rocked the public medical industry. Meanwhile, a seven-year dispute between residents of Miryang, South Gyeongsang, and the state-run Korea Electric Power Corporation over construction of high-voltage power pylons spilled over to the central government. President Park scolded officials for allowing problems to build up because they have neglected to have sincere consultations with people affected.

The Cultural Heritage Administration is wrangling with the Ulsan city government over the preservation of rock carvings at the Bangudae archeological site. Gangwon and Busan residents who have lobbied for construction of high-speed railway lines and a new international airport turned sensitive after the government decided to scale back some major infrastructure projects. Some projects were promised by President Park on the campaign trail. The Park government, not yet 100 days in office, may be feeling squeezed by a difficult domestic agenda.

South Korea ranks fourth in social conflict in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development according to a study by the Samsung Economic Research Institute, but the government’s ability to cope with conflicts is relatively poor, putting it in 23rd place. Conflicts are getting increasingly complicated and yet the government only intervenes after they go out of control. When cabinet ministers and the prime minister cannot rein them in, the president steps in at the last minute, making the entire government lose face. The government basically looks away from regional problems until they get out of control. It wants to keep out of messy affairs as long as possible. This is why it took us two decades to build a radioactive waste disposal facility.

It’s hard to establish uniform guidelines on how to address such different kinds of conflicts. But the government should at least set basic principles.

As the president pointed out, the government must try to prevent conflicts by consulting with residents and concerned parties beforehand. Authorities should communicate closely to build mutual confidence. The former administration, having suffered through violent protests over American beef imports, learned that it is as important to maintain communication with the people and build trust. Secondly, the government must come up with sustainable solutions instead of makeshift measures. If it gives into demands in order to merely settle protests, the conflicts won’t be resolved.

Thirdly, the government sometimes has to trust regional authorities to settle their own affairs. The central government can make matters worse as in the case of the Jinju Medical Center. The government also has to be honest with the people and tell them frankly if state projects cannot be carried out during its term. We hope this government deals with sticky problems better than the past ones.

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