Reforming the nation

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Reforming the nation


Lee Hong-koo

The people of this nation are in complete agreement that domestic affairs must not be run in their current fashion. The president proclaimed national reinvention her most urgent priority. But breaking down an old foundation and building a new one is no easy task. The question is how resourceful society is in persevering through such a colossal task. Those in power should particularly watch themselves to avoid falling into a money-spending trap in the process of pursuing an experiment of reinventing the country to meet public expectations in the wake of the tragic April 16 sinking of the Sewol ferry that left more than 300 passengers, mostly teenagers, missing and dead.

It is somewhat sad that I have to repeat the warning of “deficit-ridden power” every time the country faces hard times. Governments and households alike incur deficits when expenditures exceed their revenues. In politics too, if political power is squandered in order to attain policy goals without paying attention to the cost versus the benefit, it could also run out and turn into a deficit. The risk of deficits rise particularly when the need for spending increases to finance large-scale state projects that require public support and understanding. The deficits inherent in exercising power became more apparent after the country evolved into a democracy.

Under a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime, public policies were easily executed with the help of coercion to silence mass resistance through physical force, intimidation and coaxing. In a democracy, the ruling power is elected through free-will at the voting booth and its sustainability depends largely on public support. As the Constitution stipulates, “The power comes from the people.” A democratic state must run on a surplus or a balance of power fed by public support and approval. Korean democracy has been shaken several times since the landmark democratization through institutionalization of direct voting in 1987, as it had not been systematized to ensure balance in power from the people.

The Park Geun-hye government came into office with towering piles of unfinished tasks from the previous administrations. Five presidents and six terms of legislators made little progress in improving our democratic system since its founding in 1987 - only to end their respective terms aggravating and underscoring its shortcomings. The country made a Phoenix-like rebound from poverty to become an industrial and technological powerhouse over the last three decades. But the rapid transition came with the heavy cost of social conflict through widening gaps in wealth and tenacious ideological combat, triggering a public demand for greater economic equalities and social benefits that became keywords in the 2012 presidential campaign.

From its performance over the last year, however, the political leadership proved it is not up to the task of taking up such a historical mission. Disappointment turned to skepticism about the possibility of the country becoming a safe society after the Sewol ferry capsized just off the southwestern coast with hundreds of passengers trapped inside. Meanwhile, collective grief is also being turned into a firm resolution that the ferry disaster must serve as a watershed to rebuild our society as a genuinely democratic community that values people’s lives above all.

A country can be successfully reinvented when it is accompanied by social unity. The task of building a community that places humans first by replacing risks and irregularities with safety and fairness demands a willing participation from the people, including the young generation. The powerful must reach out to the people and mingle with them, paving the way for an era of communication and engagement. They must be firm not only against anti-community behavior like violence in schools and against females, but also intolerant to lesser illegalities. An honest and law-abiding civic society is the best guarantee to the safety of all of us.

Broad participation by the people is crucial to the government’s challenging task of reforming the nation. Religious, media and civic organizations all must do their part in the effort. The government’s continuous dialogue and cooperation with the opposition camp is essential to the national revitalization as well. The effort to recreate a nation in a democratic society is not possible without the help of the political sector. Bureaucrats must try to regain public trust by taking the initiative to retool their discipline and return to their original role of serving the people. If the power deficit is of concern, experts who can make the most of resources should be recruited and positioned in responsible posts to maintain a balance of power. No one would doubt that the zeitgeist is to build a true democracy through a national campaign of transformation.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 12, Page 35

*The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Hong-koo

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