The devil and the details

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The devil and the details


Hong Seung-il
The author is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo Design.

A few days ago, I saw an ugly scene on the subway after work. An old man and a young man were squabbling. The man in his 70s was yelling at the man much younger than himself because he was sitting in a seat designated for pregnant women. The young man said he should mind his own business as there were no pregnant women in the car. Watching the exchange, I realized this was going to be a perennial problem. The Seoul Metro recommends passengers avoid the seats, and the complaints on its website increasingly show that it doesn’t work well.

At a recent parliamentary interpellation session, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said, “I think a nuclear phase-out is not an appropriate phrase. Exaggerated language was used during the campaign.” He also said, “While the outcomes of the government’s income-led growth policy should be promoted, side effects from a lack of detailed planning should also be reduced.” His reaction to questions from the opposition party on the government’s nuclear and economic policy overlapped with the discord over priority seats for pregnant women. The prime minister spoke on the two main policies of the Moon Jae-in administration and was met with backlash. The prime minister’s reactions seem quite similar to the pregnant seats issue that led to an unexpected fight over seats among subway passengers.

Prime Minister Lee said, “The nuclear-phaseout is a long-term policy to decrease our dependence on nuclear power plants and make up for the loss with renewable energy over 60 years.” But the nuclear power plant industry is already collapsing, the Korea Electric Power Corporation(Kepco) and its subsidiaries are in deficit and talent in nuclear engineering is leaving the country. At a ceremony marking the permanent suspension of the Gori-1 nuclear reactor in June 2017, President Moon declared that his new administration would open a new energy era with the nuclear phase-out. The moment left a deep impression on the people.

What about income-led growth? The prime minister explained that hikes in the minimum wage were overly criticized and people should also look at reduced medical costs and household spending. But people only see the minimum wage. The government pushed to raise the hourly minimum wage to 10,000 won ($8.80) from its early days. As a result, small businesses are collapsing.

It was in 2013 that priority seats for pregnant women were designated in the in Seoul’s subway. Despite the good intention, other passengers were tested and the rules weren’t very clear. While the city wants to say it’s doing its bit to overcome low birth rates, it did not predict a possible backlash. People argued whether the priority seats were a courtesy or mandatory, and male passengers complained that the seats were often empty.


KBS employees promote a campaign for train riders to yield seats reserved for pregnant women on the subway last September. [NEWS1]

A male YouTuber vented, “Is it really fair for Seoul Metro to force tired workers or students to stand when priority seats for pregnant women are empty?” Last year, the city received 27,000 complaints related to the priority seats, more than 70 daily.

Policy studies teach that the policies to help society’s vulnerable can fail if they are not thought through in advance. There’s a lot of blame to go around in a big metropolitan city filled with tired, busy people. Korea’s social discord index is the fifth among more than 30 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries.

The policy was based on the expectation that people are basically decent. Realistically, Seoul Metro needs to consider the idea of combining the priority seats for the expecting mothers and elderly. The city can take a cue from European countries that set an order of vulnerable transit users, such as the handicapped, elderly, pregnant women and children. Just like in the nuclear phase-out and income-led growth policies, the devil is in the details.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 27, Page 31
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