Reigniting a nation’s passion

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Reigniting a nation’s passion

On a late afternoon in front of a KTX express railway station in downtown Seoul, the taxi line-up snakes 218 yards. My cab driver is awed at its length as he drops me off at the end of the line. He says that the queue is the longest he has seen in his 30 years in the business and I accept my change with a sympathetic mumble.

The news about how hard life is today for common folks is no longer news. People cannot afford to go to the hospital or buy medicine when they fall sick. Revenues for self-employed businesses are the worst in three years. An increasing number of people supporting families in their 50s are applying for state-funded basic allowances to get by. The country’s growth potential is plummeting. We have to take some pretty deep breaths in order not to panic over all the gloomy news.

Since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, three governments have come into power, all promising a better economy and improved living conditions. But we have been disappointed time after time and the economy has not been able to progress beyond a snail’s pace. Former President Lee Myung-bak was busy as a bee working from dawn to late night for the last five years. But per capita income grew a mere $3,547 and the economic growth rate slumped to below 3 percent during his term, largely due to the global financial crisis.

In the previous administration under liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, per capita income increased just $5,000. On the economic front, both liberal and conservative governments fared poorly. What has happened to the Korean economy over the last 15 years? What went wrong with its growth engine as to make the economy stall or, at best, move in slow motion?

Park Geun-hye of the conservative party won the presidential election last year not because she was a tremendously popular choice among voters. The liberal candidate simply appeared less trustworthy. The populace longs for a leader who will boost their morales. They want a leader who would pull them up from repeated failures and disappointments and raise their hopes and expectations.

It would perhaps be too much to expect leadership with the foresight to make a precise diagnosis of the problems of a seemingly worn-out economic engine and come up with magical fixes. But people hoped that our first female president, who claimed she was “prepared,” would deliver some kind of transition, or a miraculous turning point from the 15-year-long lethargy.

If President Park really wants to be the Korean version of the late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and mimic her “Iron Lady” leadership style, she shouldn’t obsess with the details. Through a strong set of prescriptions known as Thatcherism to reverse high unemployment and recession, Dame Thatcher brought life back to the dying British economy. She relentlessly cut off socially-just yet worn-out practices that choked Britain’s potential.

Under her unwavering push, the British had to get rid of their proud legacy of social welfare and strong labor unions. She fought the powerful unions and got rid of collective inefficacies, sold off weak state-owned companies and privatized housing. She suffered harsh resistance, setbacks and discord: Trains stopped, inflation shot up and strikes became commonplace. But her incessant pursuit of a new order prevailed. The economy finally revived. The self-hypnotized liberal British converted into conservatives.

All nations need turning points in order to move onto a next phase. What has made the Korean economy so anemic? Is it an over-dominance of chaebol or unfairness toward smaller businesses? Would it be behind-the-scene bargaining between labor unions and employers?

Korea Inc. has little to boast about apart from smartphones and cars. Of course, Koreans hold records when it comes to education levels, numbers of post-doctorate degree and technicalities like that. Our people are one of the most persevering and resilient races, having gone through a brutally tumultuous history in a relatively short period. Yet they cannot solve the problem with their mighty economic engine, which has downshifted and is headed for a stall. The new administration has been assigned to show the way to a better future.

The Park Geun-hye administration, now 100 days in office, is too cautious and relaxed for a government with such an immense and urgent task. I may not be alone in this observation. The new administration appears to be a “status quo” government. It is expected to refrain from dreaming up ambitious, exorbitant projects, save taxes, and set order and discipline. And it has been firm against North Korea.

But calmness could be masking timidity and discretion could be another word for avoiding risk. That’s why the government seems to lack energy. Without those qualities, though, the administration can hardly achieve its goal of ushering in a “creative economy” and instituting changes in the economic fundamentals.

Increasing temporary jobs should not be the best idea it can come up with to create jobs. Tailored social welfare won’t revitalize ordinary lives. If cabinet ministers and presidential secretaries dutifully and carefully carry out the notes they took down during meetings with the president, the small business sector could probably receive more funding and chain bankruptcies could be reduced. Yet we won’t see any fundamental changes.

Korea Inc. is running on an outdated engine. It needs an entirely new one and a fundamental makeover. But it could take forever if repair work gets bogged down in the details. Those are the realm of working-level government officials. The president instead should draw the outline and direct the way for her secretaries and ministers in officialdom.

The people urge the government to be bold and fight fearlessly against a chronic malaise in our society. The people at least want to see what the government can fight for. They want to see aggressive - not defensive - actions for the country. We Koreans wish we could be reignited with energy, ambition and passion again.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun
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