Let Sweden lead the wayPresident Park Geun-hye’s meeting with an opposition leader always had an unpleasant ending. One was always obsessed with sincerity, while the other demanded clarity. After reading a 10-page statement to corner the president, the opposition leader said he had said everything he wanted to say. The president made an appeal with a trembling voice that “it would be incredibly regretful if I fail to do many things I want to do for the people.”
The two sides tried hard to produce an agreement. There were many meaningless promises. For example, Park’s meeting with then-opposition leader Moon Jae-in in March 2015 produced an agreement to increase the minimum wage and pass the service industry development bill. The first promise was meaningless because the minimum wage was fixed under the law.
The second promise has not been realized. If the highest-level decision makers are just reaffirming their existing beliefs, holding empty monologues and breaking trust, how irresponsible and worthless politics has become!
President Park met with floor leaders and chief policy makers of the three major political parties on Friday. We are facing a turbulent time in politics. Changes at home and abroad pressure Koreans to march without a map. The seven leaders need to provide a compass.
And it will take time. There is no need to produce an agreement by meeting this one time. They just need to agree on one thing — meeting again on Friday in a month.
Tage Erlander is a former Swedish prime minister, who every Thursday, met with his political counterparts. His counterparts consisted of business leaders and rightist politicians. Erlander is the architect of Sweden as a welfare state. He became prime minister at the age of 45 and retired when he was 68.
During his tenure, from 1946 to 1969, his politics focused on making Sweden the “people’s home.” During this period, the country introduced medical insurance for all citizens, national pension for all citizens, a four-week vacation system, a nine-year free education system and the construction of one million homes. Sweden, through these achievements, became a safe shelter and warm home for its people.
“In this house, no one is special and no one is neglected” is the lesson of Sweden.
After Erlander, a member of the Social Democratic Party, took office, the head of the rightist opposition party threatened to voters that Sweden would become a communist society, just like the Soviet Union, by following the prime minister’s plan for a planned economy. What Erlander achieved, however, was the creation of a welfare state, not the liberation of the proletariat.
Erlander needed the cooperation of capitalists, who can develop the economy while financing welfare programs. Dialogues began with the capitalists and business leaders who were afraid of the leftist prime minister. In Erlander’s invitation, he wrote, “I am free on Thursday. Let’s meet first and talk.”
Later, he proposed to keep his Thursday evenings free from then on. Consultations among labor, business and government officials, as well as the ruling and opposition parties in the government, continued.
In modern Swedish history, the “Thursday Club” became a very famous dinner gathering. The meetings took place on Thursdays at the summer residence of the prime minister in a rural area and a special palace in the capital city. The labor union’s cooperation to end a strike and freeze wages, and the business community’s determination to pay the highest taxes in the world, were made at the Thursday Club.
In 1969, Erlander stepped down to hand over the prime minister post to a young politician. He said he had achieved all his dreams. After he retired, the public became aware that he had no house to live in. Although he succeeded in building the “people’s home” during his 23 years in office, he did not build a home of his own. The prime minister lived in a house built by the Social Democratic Party next to a youth training center, along with other members, and died at the age of 84. The Swedish people gave him the title “Father of the People.”
Sweden has a population one-fifth that of Korea, and its social background and history are different from Korea’s, so it is inappropriate to make it a role model for us.
And yet, there is no reason for Korea not to build the kind of welfare state Sweden has achieved. Building a welfare society depends on politics and politicians. Transparency, dialogue, persuasion and trust are political tools.
The first action plan will be Park’s weekly meetings with ruling and opposition politicians, and labor unionists including non-regular workers, unemployed youth and retirees in their 50s. It will be the first time Park has walked this road.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 13, Page 34
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.