The great rebuilding

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The great rebuilding


Cho Yoon-jae

The buzzword now making the rounds in the wake of the calamitous Sewol ferry sinking is national rebuilding. Such work demands the breaking of old foundations to build anew. A state is built on the people and a system. To bring about renewal, both key components must be changed. No matter how well it is made, a system is of no use if people do not comply with it. Man-made catastrophes like the Sewol’s sinking will be repeated. No matter how decent people are, they cannot act with true decency if the system is bad. The first step to the historical mission of rebuilding our society should be deep soul-searching.

The 66 years of our history since the war have been truly amazing. Our rapid economic and democratic achievements have awed the world and become the envy of many developing countries. So why do we need a complete makeover now? Because Koreans have become utterly disenchanted with their social and governmental status quo.

Widespread and deeply seated perceptions of unfairness, corruption, foul play, insensitivity and inefficiency have fed disgust and distrust of the government, our leaders and the entire society. We now hear a mighty chorus of anger and resentment, turning the country into a land that is touchy, contentious and divided. To reset the national mood, everything about this country must go - its ways of governance, customary practices and even the everyday behavior of common people.

The leaders and the elite class should be the first to change. Leaders and the elite, including myself, are lacking not only in capabilities but also commitment to future generations. In advanced countries, we often come upon cashiers who can’t even count out change correctly, and we snicker. But their companies, markets and governments run well thanks to established, efficient systems and management.

Today’s Korea has been built on the toil and sweat of workers, engineers, businessmen, soldiers and bureaucrats. But in order to become a truly advanced country, politicians, journalists, scholars and bureaucrats must have the wisdom, capabilities and good sense to run a developed society.

Evils can sprout if a system is not just and practical. To sever the cozy and corrupt ties between businesses and bureaucrats and break up the old-boy network in our bureaucratic society, fair rewards and incentives are as much needed as discipline and punishment.

Public officials receive the same pay depending on their years in service regardless of the type of work they do and qualifications. Officials working in economy-related government offices are as qualified and capable as senior executives in large companies or financial institutions. Elite government officials and their families would prefer to compare themselves to corporate executives, not employees of post offices or district community offices. Foreign government officials are paid differently according to their line of work.

But Korea pays the same salary to an economy-related officer in the central government that it pays community service offices in local administrations. It doesn’t recognize that some jobs are more important than others in public office.

All jobs serving the people and country are valuable. The problem is that public officials with outstanding educational backgrounds in elite government offices, including prosecutors and judges, cannot be expected to be happy with modest pay. They are instead lured by other perks, such as the post-retirement arrangement of landing high-paying jobs in industry associations, the private sector, law firms, etc.

The tradition feeds a culture of collusion between businesses and industries and regulators and administrators. The not-so-hidden tie between the public and private sector services cronyism and precludes fair and rightful enforcement of law and order. What was designed in the name of fairness only ends up undermining fairness.

Still Korean society went on demanding civil servants practice sacrifice and commitment without fixing the fundamental flaw in its reward system. Many other areas in our system are self-contradictory and paradoxical. Enforcement of uniformity in public education in order to offer equal opportunity in education wreaked havoc on public education and sent parents and children to costly cram schools and overseas studies. Inequality in education only worsened and parents’ wealth became crucial determinants in the children’s path in education and life choices.

To rebuild this nation, our society must drop the hypocrite act. We all want motivations and rewards to work. Our systems should be overhauled to accommodate realistic and practical needs. Leaders and the public must frankly discuss what needs to be changed and what actions are necessary for the transition.

The process will be long and hard. Even building a house requires extensive discussions and cooperation between the architect and a landowner on designing and construction procedures. The rebuilding of a nation would demand an even longer commitment of hours and energy. Unrealistic and impromptu designs will only build a house of cards.

Without broad participation and support from the people, the colossal work of reinventing a nation would end in rhetoric.

Instead of castigating the president and leaders for not repenting and shedding tears more sincerely, we should demand of them cool-headed analysis and resolute actions to fix this nation. The people must inspire these changes from the bottom-up to make the Sewol crisis a monumental turning point for this country.

Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, May 24, Page 31

*The author is an economics professor at Sogang University.

BY Cho Yoon-jae
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