What happened to our optimism?I used to hear it a lot when I was young: there is little that can or cannot be done in Korea. In other words, nothing is impossible if you have the right family background or connections and nothing is possible without them. Korea has been that slack and corrupt. But there was a will and longing to change. That collective will brought about the fast transformation into a democratic and economically successful society.
The stench of corruption has returned and cast a pall over society. It has developed into collective defeatism putting society in a zombie-like state. Serious symptoms of danger are apparent and rampant across society, which is stifled and dogged with the absence of political dexterity - as underscored by the recent showdown with ruling party floor leader Yoo Seung-min and the presidential office - economic woes, worsening slowdown and income disparities, a never-ending regional and ideological divide and an overall lack of decorum. And yet nobody appears to be interested in deep soul-searching and working toward finding fixes to these problems.
Everyone is just muddling through with an economy that is going nowhere. Anxieties are building up as society is sailing hopelessly without any political or social direction. What has become of a country that was once full of energy and dynamism? There are many reasons behind the numb and lethargic state we find ourselves in. I first want to talk about the traps of democracy and the chaebol. The fast development of democracy and industrialization propelled by a unique family-owned conglomerate business structure was once our proud legacy. But today, Korean ways of democracy and chabeol structure are what drag down society. We must shake off the chains and sever ourselves from our glorified past to chart a new path. The work and journey won’t be easy.
It has been nearly 30 years since Korea achieved democratization. Collective desires and expectations for democracy in the late 1980s have brought about peaceful power transfers for the first time and won praise at home and abroad. But apart from having installed the nuts and bolts for a democratic foundation, Korean politics has made little effort or progress in setting the direction and agenda for the country’s future and finding ways to draw a public consensus for unity toward a common goal. We were hopeful at every election, wishing the new government would be different and show the way. We were disillusioned and disappointed every time. We might as well give up hope in politicians and their capability to solve political problems. We cannot grow out of the delusion of a democratic system as long as we regard democracy as only an event that comes around every four to five years.
On the economic front, we must do away with our preoccupation with the chaebol. We have tended to regard the chaebol as “too big to fail.” We have lived long with the idea that the economy hinges on the chaebol. While deploring the numerous benefits, incentives and prerogatives bestowed on them, we believed their success would trickle down to smaller enterprises and enrich individual lives. While relying entirely on the prosperity of a few chaebol groups to run and sustain the economy, we idly spoke of a new growth engine.
But the chaebol too are now threatened by competition from China and other countries. While resources for new innovation and energy are primarily focused on the chaebol sector, the contemporary and younger generations are in disarray, leading to an ever-weakening competitiveness. We must think seriously about what the chaebol mean to our society.
Overcoming our democratic and chaebol constraints will not be easy. We need new energy and resolution. First of all, we must do away with defeatism and the belief that nothing can be done on the political and economic fronts. We must break out of apathy by rejecting sour judgments about the future, blind optimism and thoughts of a hopeless and helpless state. We must create a national council. We must muster wisdom from people of all walks of life to think seriously on our direction. We must awaken society and make it feel and live again.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, July 4, Page 27
*The author is head of the Korea Institute for Shared Growth and former prime minister.
by Chung Un-chan