The new Assembly’s goalsEvery season has its unique beauty. But spring, when nature dresses in fresh new green, is loveliest. Mountains are lavished with colorful decorations. Each flower and tree competes to show their best. But anticipation for a season of new life is mixed with grief and sadness during this season, which also marks the anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry in April 2014. Ironically, hundreds of young lives were cut short in the season of new life.
According to a simulation by Prof. Park Hyung-joo of Gachon University, all 304 lives could have been saved if the victims escaped with the crew members who fled the ship without telling the passengers. The country failed to save a single soul except for those who helped themselves. People have lost faith that their lives are protected by the state. We have seriously begun to question the role of the state from the attitudes of the president, ruling party lawmakers and bureaucrats. They treat the Sewol victims’ families as if they are entirely after cash, and they delay and interrupt the fact-finding process. There is no sense of respect for wasted lives, nor is there atonement and responsibility for state negligence. What kind of a country are we living in?
Like any other country, Korea has both bright and dark sides. The country has achieved a miraculous rags-to-riches transformation. From one of the poorest countries, it is now among the richest and can afford to help others. Its 50 million people earn incomes that come close to their counterparts in the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France and Italy. On their own, the people brought down an authoritarian military regime and institutionalized political democracy. Korean culture and entertainment is dubbed Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, and has swept across Asia and beyond. There is a lot that Koreans can be proud of.
But a closer look finds much to be desired in Korea. It scores poorly in individual rights and happiness scales. The country is rich, but too many people are struggling to make ends meet with little social security available in old age. The young dare not hope or dream. Its level of inequality is as bad as the world’s worst. Our ratios of poverty in old age and suicide are the highest among members of the OECD. The shadows stretch far and deep. A recent global evaluation shows the country’s democracy and individual liberty standards are worsening. The freedom of our press has receded to a ranking of 70th on a global scale.
What’s most worrisome is hopelessness among the young. If the young lose hope, a society and country cannot advance. In a debate on the theme of what kind of future Korean people aspire to, Park Sung-won, a researcher at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, reported a survey result showing 42 percent of people aged between 20 and 34 desire a breakup of the current system and an entirely new beginning, while just 23 percent favor sustainable economic growth. The November edition of the monthly Shindonga journal carried a poll showing that 50 percent of young people between 20 and 30 are discontent with the country they are living in. Most young Koreans feel isolated and resentful toward their motherland and dream of an entirely new society.
The outcome of the April 13 general election brought forth some seeds of hope. The engagement of young voters suggested that there were still many who have not given up hope. The creation of a legislature in which the liberals hold a majority underscores aspirations for change from the younger generation. They are pleading for a future where they can be rewarded for hard work regardless of their background, instead of a society in which all the fruits of prosperity go to a small minority.
The role and duties of the 20th National Assembly are therefore significant. If the new legislature has the will to fight for the people’s interests, it must push hard to retool the social structure. Instead of fretting over macroeconomic data, policy makers and lawmakers must place top priority on upgrading individual living standards through balanced and symbiotic growth.
Food no longer means everything. Our society must aim for a higher value. As much as quantitative growth, the quality and sustainability of individual lives should be emphasized. Slow growth is said to have become the so-called new normal. Against such uncertainties, society should strive not to leave anyone behind to achieve sustainable growth, and ensure safe and stable lives for each individual. A crisis like the Sewol ferry sinking could have been avoided if the economy ran on a balance of growth and efficiency through promotion and deregulations.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 2, Page 31
*The author, a former prime minister, is the director of the Korea Institute for Shared Growth.