How masters play

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How masters play


In a game of baduk (the Korean name for the board game Go), one knows he or she has made the perfect “God’s play” once a stone is laid. When Ahn Chong-bum, the senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, first came up with a set of 19 bills to help salvage the economy last August, few expected it would turn out to be a winning move. He said if these bills passed the legislature, the economy could be restored. Whether he intended it or not, those words became a curse on the opposition. The economic ball was lobbed onto their side of the court. The government and ruling party repeated Ahn’s mantra: The economy is doing poorly, they said, because the opposition was holding the life-saving economic bills hostage to other political issues. If it didn’t do what they wanted, the opposition would end up being blamed for putting the economy at risk and being the cause of a prolonged slump.

In a zero-sum game of politics, a winning move for one side must mean a loss for its opponent. The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) does not have good countermoves up its sleeves. Among the 19 bills, a few could be seen as detrimental to the party or being against the party’s formal positions and manifesto. If they are passed, the party’s beliefs could be questioned. The NPAD believes the medical law revision that calls for approval of telemedicine could lead to the creation of for-profit hospitals and full liberalization of the medical industry. It argues that as a party representing the working class, it cannot agree with a law that could cause economic polarization in health care.

But it cannot outright oppose the bill. The world health care market is estimated at 2,200 trillion won ($2,033 billion). The home market alone generates revenues of 75 trillion won. Growth in that sector could bring Korea thousands of new jobs. If the country makes the most of its world-class information and telecommunication technology, the medical industry could be a future cash cow. Telemedicine could be a tipping point. If the bill is blocked, ICT skills could be wasted. A TV manufacturer cannot make color TV sets and advance his technology if color broadcasting is banned. One opposition party official said he agreed with the idea but could not go against his party’s stance.

Another aspect of the package of 19 economic bills is that it is elastic. If necessary, the bills can grow to 30 or 50. It can stretch like a wizard’s magic wand. Former NPAD head Kim Han-gill used to sneer that the ruling party regards the package of economy bills as if it has some magical powers. A dozen bills cannot suddenly turn an economy around. But blocking them and standing in the way of an honest attempt is worse.

The ruling party is happy that it can pin some blame on the opposition. The opposition could only respond that the effect of the bills was a fantasy from the start. But its logic was unconvincing and it feared stigmatization as being responsible for neglecting the economy-stimulus bills. The opposition stepped back and approved some real estate and business bills late last year as part of a deal to pass the government’s budget. But the ruling party has not given up and proclaims there are still 12 left.

It is relatively easy to play the ruling party’s role. It only has to cite data and chant that there’s a need for bipartisanship. If a party is divided, even just criticism or objective facts can become muted. The friction only strengthens the voices of fundamentalists. In psychology, such a phenomenon is called “biased assimilation.” People tend to interpret or digest new information in a way that it is consistent with pre-existing views. To keep minority voices alive, it is necessary to avoid collective one-sidedness.

There are minority voices within the NPAD, too. Lee Jin-bok, a researcher for the party, proposed earlier this year that the party should focus on increasing social mobility to help the working class become the middle class, the middle class to become the rich and the rich to join the world’s ranks. He asked, “How long will the NPAD trap itself in an imaginary world of ordinary people by segregating the riches from the rest of the population?”

What the government and ruling party most fear is for nothing to happen even after the opposition passes the bills. That would prove their confidence was an act. They would be labeled incompetent. Or it could work the other way. The economy is revived after the bills are approved and the credit is given to the spirit of bipartisanship on the part of the opposition. That could also work favorably for the opposition and help its outlook in the next elections. In other words, the opposition can win. To respond to a master’s play is another master’s play. Passing the bills could be a game-changing move for the main opposition - if it learns a new way of playing the game.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 15, Page 30

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yi Jung-jae

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