Korea’s killing fields
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“First They Killed My Father,” directed by Hollywood-star Angelina Jolie, is frightening from the get-go. The film, recently featured on Netflix, recounts the tragic events of 1975 Cambodia through the lives of a family that lives through hell after the Khmer Rouge regime takes power. After losing her father to forced labor, Loung Ung, a five-year-old and the family’s youngest daughter, survives and recalls what happened.
As Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge pursued extreme communization, nationwide agricultural was promoted in Cambodia. To the people arriving at collective farms, soldiers said the frightening words: “We are all equal. No bank or commerce is needed. Surrender all personal belongings and dye your clothes black.” Then the endless forced labor began. People were killed for their class — because they wore glasses or had soft hands. The Killing Fields turned Cambodia into a living hell.
The fear of standardization hovers over the Moon Jae-in administration’s income-led growth policy, starting with the ideological inclination of a policy experiment unprecedented in world economic history. The government drastically raised the minimum wage to keep Moon’s election promise. In the process, opinions of the involved parties were ignored. The policy is being implemented uniformly despite an increasing number of victims thanks to the administration’s conviction that its direction is right.
The sentiment — to make a country in which everyone is prosperous — is good. The reasoning is that when incomes increase, spending of low-income earners would grow and the economy would go into a good cycle. Income disparities are also stressed and are supposedly being addressed. President Moon said in a New Year’s press conference that Korea is one of the countries with the most severe economic inequalities. However, the 2018 Human Development Reports shows that Korea’s Gini coefficient, Palma ratio and quintile ratio are all on the lower side among 156 countries around the globe. Lower numbers mean less income disparity and wealth polarization.
The administration is raising the minimum wage regardless of employers’ capacity to pay and is pushing for reduced work hours to increase jobs. The adverse effects are quickly spreading. Aside from the 1 percent of large corporations, the 99 percent of small- and medium-sized enterprises are increasingly avoiding hiring due to the suffocating wage burden, which led to the worst-ever employment crisis. As it consequently lowered the vitality of Korea’s overall economy, growth fell into the 2-percent range.
But the government is ignoring the call. The head of the Korea Federation of SMEs, which represents small business owners, was abruptly investigated. The group was not even invited to the government’s meetings with small- and mid-size businesses. Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy and Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki paid a visit to the group, but only reaffirmed that the minimum wage plan cannot be changed.
Last year, it is estimated that more than 1 million small business owners had to shut down. Why are they pushed off the cliff? Are they petit bourgeoisie? Could they be wealthy capitalists some day by running a chicken joint or a restaurant? Small businesses were already challenged after the shocks from the foreign currency crisis and fast-aging population. With the rapid digitalization of the economy, small business owners remain at risk.
As in the movie, “First They Killed My Father,” an ideology-driven policy that ignored the market is accelerating the collapse of small businesses in Korea. I wonder why the Moon administration’s stubborn policies are making small business owners scapegoats.
JoongAng Sunday, Feb. 9-10, Page 30