The uncharted path
As the New Year has begun, Koreans wish for a better year, as they always do. But they are too depressed to sing a song of hope. They feel they are walking on an uncharted path. Korea will most likely face a seismic shift in its political landscape after the April 13 general election. Our economic frontier is gloomy, as evidenced by a probably unreachable goal of 3 percent growth this year. The government’s crisis management capabilities are not trustworthy, as evidenced by the Sewol ferry sinking and the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). The ever-deepening polarization of wealth and ever-growing household debt have laid bare our society’s structural problems.
But we cannot simply sit on our hands. In retrospect, Koreans have overcome countless hardships over the past seven decades with an unflinching determination. In that way, we simultaneously achieved industrialization and democratization. We have such a vibrant DNA. This year should be no exception. We must surmount our adversities, prepare for a better future and write another proud chapter of Korean history.
The first step is addressing our alarmingly low birthrate - arguably the biggest factor for our survival and our prosperity in the future. Despite the government’s 81 trillion won ($68.9 billion) investment in the issue since 2006, Korea has had an ultra-low birthrate (less than 1.3 children per family) for 14 consecutive years. Unless we get out of this trap, we can never escape the vicious cycle of a decreased population, reduced consumption and slowed growth. Our neighbors are trying to tackle the same challenges. China just ended decades of a strict one-child policy. Japan is doing its utmost to avert a population decrease. It’s appointed a minister in charge of the mission.
Korea must maintain a population of at least 50 million to ensure prosperity. The government is kicking off a third campaign from this year by putting more than 200 trillion won in 200 projects over the next five years. But fundamental change beyond the realm of the government is needed. We have to persuade women to have children. We must learn lessons from France and Sweden, which solved the problem after establishing solid ways to help parents balance work and family.
Another challenge is how to prepare for the reunification of this divided land. The government must start to educate the young generation about the need for unification and teach its virtues. West Germany’s Ostpolitik was not simply about dealing with political and diplomatic issues. The country registered remarkable annual growth of 5.9 percent between 1950 and 1972 thanks to the Miracle on the Rhine, but it plummeted to the 2 percent range after 1973. But West Germany found a new growth engine in Ostpolitik. We can find a similar clue to our future prosperity in our North Korea policy. Global markets are rapidly saturated and the Chinese economy is increasingly losing steam. The time has come for us to depart from the sentimental slogan of “Our wish is unification” and press ahead with aggressive policies.
The key is to consolidate our alliance with the United States and reinforce strategic partnerships with China and other neighbors. Above all, the government must find a breakthrough in deadlocked inter-Korean relations. Fortunately, North Korea shows tangible signs of change thanks to the revitalization of private markets, the popularization of mobile phones and the individual possession of various goods such as motorcycles. It’s up to us to advance the day of peaceful unification. Unification is not a choice. It is our destiny.
The question is who should take on these challenges. Our lawmakers are thrusting the whole nation into a chaotic state after reneging on their obligations. It is ordinary citizens - not politicians - who are worried about the confrontation-prone politics at the National Assembly. Our government appears to be at its wit’s end, as seen in its terrible reactions to the Sewol disaster and the MERS outbreak. Ordinary citizens’ roles are very important here. In an increasingly multi-layered society, a few leaders cannot lead social change. Citizens across society must reshape it. They are the small heroes of the new era.
Three years have passed since President Park Geun-hye took office. With several elections slated for this year and the following year, the specter of populism looms. Internally, our economy must wrestle with four severe challenges - of growth, exports, consumption and employment. Externally, it must fight a triple whammy of global recession, China’s precipitous slowdown and plunging crude prices. This is the last year for the Park administration to do its job. The government must accelerate national reforms rather than get stuck in time-wasting disputes.
We should launch a triple campaign to address the low birthrate, to prepare for unification and to foster a mature citizenry. We can take an uncharted path together. We believe we can make it.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 2, Page 30