Assessing the Park presidency
“During the five years of the Park Geun-hye presidency, did your life get any better?” This is the question to ask when Park’s term ends in February 2018. In the 2012 presidential election, Park was elected with “pledges that will change the world.” They were pledges that were directly related to issues of all age groups and social classes, including young working parents, university students, the elderly and micro-business owners. If her pledges were implemented properly, the answer would be, “Life has gotten better.”
Most working mothers probably voted for her because of the Nuri program for free child care for children between ages 3 and 5. But after three years, the central government and local governments are fighting over who will pay the bill, and the budget for the program has already been drained. Heads of the local education offices are about to give up on the Nuri program. Working mothers are feeling troubled.
University students had high expectations that their tuitions would be cut in half by 2014. The pledge has now changed to a scholarship program linked to household income levels, and only about 30 percent of students are benefiting from the program.
Park promised to pay living subsidies to all those over the age of 65, but only those in the bottom 70 percent of income levels are receiving subsidies of up to 200,000 won ($170) and as low as 70,000 won. Worse comes to worst, those receiving subsidies for a minimum standard of living were receiving the assistance while their pensions were deducted. Complaints arose that Park had given the benefit first and then took it away later. The living subsidy of up to 200,000 won per month for the 70 percent of the elderly population is not the fundamental resolution. This is the limit of a welfare policy without tax hikes.
The youth unemployment rate is 9 percent, the worst since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The unemployment rate of the young male population particularly rose from 9.1 percent in 2013 to 10.5 percent in 2014. Although Park promises to create jobs for the youngsters whenever she has a chance, the reality is the opposite.
Economic democratization, a policy designed by Dr. Kim Jong-in, former economic senior secretary of the Blue House during Park’s presidential campaign, has long been forgotten. The key of the policy is the “social market” implemented in Germany since the era of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. It aims to correct the contradictions in the market and protect the weak. The concept of curbing the greed of the conglomerates was misunderstood as a policy of killing the conglomerates, and it must have been one of the reasons why Park had abandoned the promise.
The nation’s household debt was 900 trillion won in Park’s first year, but the amount has gone up to 1,200 trillion won. Ordinary people are living with high debt. Micro-business owners and small neighborhood shops are being crushed. Economic democratization is an effective resolution to remedy the polarizing wealth gap of our society. As some pessimists worry, the country may face an employment cliff in four to five years unless a change is made.
There is no guarantee that we won’t face a clash between the greed of the conglomerates and the survival instincts of our youth. Unless the Fair Trade Commission monitors the market properly, and welfare programs for the poor elderly population, jobless youngsters and working mothers improve, and small business owners are supported by reforming the tax system to increase the revenue, our society will fall into a mire of confrontations between the generations and classes. The outcome will be serious and loud.
The National Assembly must actively try to resolve the contradiction of the market economy, but the ruling and opposition parties are doing nothing but spending all their energy on internal power struggles. Where can the people find hope? Park’s warning on the National Assembly’s failure to do its job was too roughly worded, but it reflects the public sentiment.
It is regretful that Korea does not have a recall system for lawmakers. If lawmakers continue to pay attention only to building their own factions and to being re-elected in the general election rather than serving the public, we may need a midterm evaluation system in which lawmakers are re-evaluated by the voters in the middle of their four-year terms. Park and politicians must never forget that it is a matter of time that the cynicism of the jobless youngsters, ordinary people suffering from household debt, the poor elderly and bankrupt small business owners will turn into nihilism. The government and the National Assembly must seriously think about why Hillary Clinton, a presidential hopeful of the Democratic Party of the United States, is putting “inclusive capitalism” at the center of her election pledges.
Over the past three years, Park carried out 20 overseas trips and concluded free trade agreements with seven countries, achieving significant diplomatic accomplishments. And yet the obstacles of inter-Korean relations and Korea-Japan relations - among the most important diplomatic relations for Korea - remain unchanged. Principles are important but we need pragmatic, realistic diplomacy. Her slogan of “unification is a jackpot” has become a stumbling block to unification. Peaceful coexistence of the two Koreas is the priority in the progress of unification. The wise policy will be abandoning the principle of mechanical reciprocity and making a bold decision to resume the Mount Kumgang tours first to wait for the North’s response.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 25, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie