Welcome to ‘Hell Joseon’

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Welcome to ‘Hell Joseon’

Skeptical, sarcastic and resentful language dominate the realm of cyberspace frequented by young Koreans. They complain that today’s society has reverted to the pre-modern Joseon era, where rigid social stratification dictated how one lived one’s life. The young waste their teenage years staggering from one cram school to another to get into heavily competitive colleges. Their 20s are spent in vain searches for jobs. Their 30s are insecure as they cannot afford to get married or find a place to live. No matter how hard they try, they are stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. The vexed coinage “Hell Joseon” is how young people address their country these days. It underscores the depth of their resentment and frustration towards the tough and insensitive world they live in and the widening generational gap.

After the economy changed to a slow-moving gear, the engine that is supposed to redistribute wealth has become dysfunctional. This phenomenon happens to be everywhere, not just in Korea. The good fortune of the wealthy fails to trickle down. The majority in the bottom half cannot afford to spend and companies are incurring losses because they cannot sell their products. The breakdown in market capitalism has taken a heavy toll on the weak.

Everyone in Korea feels insecure apart from those on the permanent payroll of large companies, in the civil service and those fortunate enough to be born into wealthy families. People kicked out of jobs take out loans to open bakeries or fried chicken shops. Most of them do not earn 1 million won ($837) a month. Their businesses don’t last more than three years. They end up sitting on an average debt of 120 million won. As more and more go under, real estate prices plunge and financial institutions become shaky due to a surge in bad loans. The young live in frustration and the middle aged hit bottom. Republicanism, the political philosophy of democratic societies, places universal interests and civic virtues above individual ones. The national viability is jeopardized if the constitutional mandate on republican goals cannot be upheld. The “Hell Joseon” curse puts the republican idea to a test.

Fortunately there are leaders in the world that are well aware of the modern-day social and economic plague. Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State and an aspiring presidential candidate, champions “inclusive capitalism,” or prosperity for all. Market-oriented inclusive capitalism has been pitched by former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who joined Hillary’s election campaign. In a report, Summers warned that unless there is serious government intervention, inequality and lack of financial resources among those in the bottom half will result in insufficient aggregate demand and a slowdown of the gross domestic product.

Clinton detailed her agenda by promising to give workers the chance to share in the profits they help produce through two-year credits that would encourage profit-sharing. Capital’s share of national income has risen while labor’s share has fallen. The rises in hourly productivity and wages were 97 percent and 91 percent respectively from 1948 to 1973, according to the U.S. Economic Policy Institute study. Between 1973 and 2011, productivity surged 94 percent while hourly wages grew just 9 percent. The incomes of the middle-class stayed unchanged for a full 38 years. Profit-sharing is an idea to restore the growth. Because it proposes to return profits according the workers’ contributions, productivity would naturally improve. As the head of the Korea Commission for Corporate Partnership four years ago, former Prime Minister Chung Un-chan floated the idea of sharing excess profits for the first time in Korea.

Global entrepreneurs joined hands with leaders to spread the idea. The Inclusive Capitalism Conference in London drew over 250 corporate leaders and influential figures from 37 countries including former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

Under the banner of “The Will to Make Capitalism Fairer: The Means to Do It,” panelist Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, claimed that the essence of capitalism was under threat. Capitalism, he pointed out, “Often encourages shortsightedness, contributes to wide disparities between the rich and the poor, and tolerates the reckless treatment of environmental capital. If these costs cannot be controlled, support of capitalism may disappear.”

He and his capitalist peers urged the creation of a new ethical growth framework led by companies, government and financial institutions. The participants in the conference controlled about $3 trillion in capital, a third of global investment funds. In her keynote speech, Lagarde stressed that inequality would slow growth and sustainability.

Well-known philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have asked for themselves to be taxed more for their enormous wealth through the “Tax me more” campaign. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also shares the prescription that as inequalities and poverty have worsened since the global financial meltdown of 2008, only inclusive growth can ensure sustainable growth in the global economy. The business concepts of self-restraint and sharing are catching on fast across the world.

President Park Geun-hye talked of common prosperity citing the country’s signature development model Saemaul Undong, which can help narrow the gap between rural and urban communities. She also reminded the world that education is the key sustainable development agenda that would promote a benign cycle of creating jobs and balancing growth. But those are mere words. We need to hear a concrete agenda to lift the heavy pall of pessimism and plant seeds of hope for the young people.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 30, Page 27

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

by Lee Ha-kyung

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