Toward a win-win modelThe 386 generation — Koreans born in the 1960s who went to university in the 1980s and came into their 30s in the 1990s — helped put the liberals back in power after nearly a decade of two conservative administrations. They led the massive candlelight vigils on the street to remove scandal-plagued President Park Geun-hye. They masterminded President Moon Jae-in’s campaign strategy in the May snap election.
The 386ers, who have lived through tumultuous political, social and economic changes, were evenly spread out in labor, civic groups and mainstream politics and kept up strong bonds among themselves. Quintessentially sensitive to injustices, they have long discussed the widening wealth polarization, inequalities and fundamental changes needed for our society. Compared to the often divisive and inconsistent conservative camp, the 386ers stayed devoted and morally consistent and straight.
Moon did not try to brand his government as the common folk versus the elite as his liberal predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun did. Still, it has clear identity: it is an activist government. Activists from civic groups had also been recruited by the Kim and Roh administrations.
But they were mostly given supporting roles as they were in their 30s and early 40s when their left-leading presidents were in office. Kim and Roh mixed former democracy movement activists with traditional elite bureaucrats to balance policies. Under them, career bureaucrats — Kang Bong-kyun, Jin Nyum, Lee Hun-jai, Byeong Yang-kyoon and Kim Seok-dong, to name a few — headed economic and financial policies.
A decade has passed. The 386ers are now in their late 40s or 50s. They are more passionate and confident about the government they helped create. They also have the full confidence of the president and act like his surrogates.
They innately distrust bureaucrats. They believe that a reform drive under Roh lost steam in the face of opposition and resistance from bureaucrats. They think bureaucrats have deepened the inequalities because they clung to a growth model concentrated on the chaebol under blind compliance with mainstream neo-liberalism and globalization theories. The economy grew as they predicted, but the fruits of prosperity mostly went to the elite.
Bureaucrats are hardly noticeable in the Moon administration. Many government officials argued that policies promoting innovation and business growth and allowing more flexibility in the labor market were essential to increase jobs. The activists-turned-aides disagreed, claiming that those were the old ways that must not be repeated. They demanded the government appropriate the budget to spur incomes for the common people and collect more tax from the rich.
In a remarkable shift, Moon recently gave an order that had been unheard of for the last four months. He took bureaucrats’ advice and emphasized growth in enterprises and technology innovation. He may have come to the awareness that growth through higher wages and incomes will not create jobs. Continuing unemployment among the young may have made him jittery as he was elected on the promise to make jobs for the young.
Moon told Kim Dong-yeon, his deputy prime minister in charge of the economy, to come up with an action plan to stimulate growth led by innovation. Kim was among those who repeatedly argued for policy attention on innovation and flexibility in the labor market in order to create jobs.
Will there now be a leveling off in the policy field from a government that titled towards the left? The activists will hardly give up that easily. In the end, it’s up to the president.
Bureaucrats are often mocked as “soulless beings.” They are trained to follow orders from their boss. Government officials are engineers who must make policies work in tune with social needs as well as the philosophy of the ruling power. They should not be shunned because they had been loyal to conservative governments for the last decade.
They had no control over who was in power. Activists have sympathy for the weak and concentrate on welfare and distribution of wealth. They are, however, less versed in economic policies that can generate growth. Many bona fide policies have not turned out well.
Moon should hold a serious debate on this issue as his former boss Roh did. Everyone about the country’s future whether they’re on the left or on the right. The debates must include companies and labor. At the end of the day, we may reach a consensus on labor relations and a win-win growth model for the country to move on.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 29, Page 28
*The author is the head of the Economic Research Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.