Korea’s current operating system needs fundamental change

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Korea’s current operating system needs fundamental change


Chang Byung-gyu, Chairperson of the Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution

President Moon Jae-in announced his plan to introduce “national artificial intelligence (AI) strategy” within this year. However, the reality of that strategy seems unlikely. Van-hailing service provider Tada, which stood as an “icon of innovation” with 1.25 million users, is facing court trials, and the three sets of laws intended to vitalize the AI industry have been going nowhere in the National Assembly for a year.

Chang Byung-gyu, chairperson of the Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, expressed his frustration recently. “If we go on like this, Korea has no future,” said Chang, when submitting his recommendations for the fourth industrial revolution to the government.

The JoongAng Ilbo spoke with Chang, who felt as if he were “belling the cat” when he wrote the recommendations. The moment he sat down, Chang showed us a Facebook post uploaded by Hur Jin-ho, the former CEO of Neowiz, which said, “Ongoing social conflicts must be resolved delicately. If not, there is no guarantee that Korea will continue to become a better nation than the Philippines or Argentina.”

During the interview, chairperson Chang said he was stuck on that thought as he was drawing up the recommendations. Below are edited excerpts of the interview.

Q. What made you relate to Mr. Hur’s post?

. As he mentioned, Korea’s current operating system needs fundamental change and innovation. Fear is spreading that though Korea pulled off the “miracle of Han River,” it might fall short of reaching $30,000 in gross national income and end up like the Philippines or Argentina. Our forebears left us with amazing progress, but by looking at how the ruling party, central government and Blue House cooperate, we face grave challenges.

The reality must be frustrating for you.

The operating system of Korea as one country is in serious crisis. Whether you like it or not, social order led by the military, chaebol and bureaucracy was effective in the 70s and 80s. Now, though procedural democracy is complete, I have doubts on efficiency. Social actors such as bureaucrats, chaebol, press, lawmakers and judicial officers are drenched in selfishness and neglecting duties, keeping to themselves without fluid cooperation. Korea’s future will be damaged if any one of them neglects their duty.

Do your recommendations reflect voices in the field?

The recommendations, which are more of a 10-page-long introduction, hold a lot of significance. No one really reads a document over 100 pages. The recommendations are a condensed version of a 180-page-long document, and thankfully, many people read the recommendations, which caused social waves.

What is the main point of the recommendations?

Basically, Korean people’s anxiety stems from a lack of quality jobs. This issue broke out amidst radical change of scientific technology brought about by globalization and the fourth industrial revolution. The question is, how should the government of a nation react? This is the start of recognizing a problem. This issue is not simply confined to science technology or an industry, and it demands a change of our society as a whole. To bring a change, innovation throughout labor policy, education and social security is essential. Based on this premise, the recommendations offer customized strategies for each industry.

What was your biggest focus?

From beginning to end, it was all about education and labor issues. In the end, every problem boils down to “how do we cultivate human resources, where do we get the right people and how can we change education?” AI eventually needs human operators. Then how can we grow a talent with various skills who understand AI? The answer is in education. For customized strategies for each industry to take effect, the environment for innovation must change, but the topic concerning higher education always comes up. That is why I covered labor and education at the same time.

A consensus was reached on three sets of data law, is that correct?

To facilitate the fourth industrial revolution, it is imperative to pass the Personal Information Protection Act, the Information and Communication Network Act and the Credit Information Act. That is why the Presidential Committee on the Forth Industrial Revolution held a hackathon, an endless debate to find a solution for innovating regulation until we found one. Even an NGO supporting the protection of personal information which previously accused the government was invited. Through conflicts with interest parties, social consensus was reached, which became the foundation for the three sets of data law later introduced in the National Assembly.

Then why are those laws adrift?

That is because the National Assembly wants to pass those laws together with irrelevant laws. The bills, which already reached a social consensus, [have been] sleeping in the National Assembly for a year because of the “logic of lawmakers” while the public’s livelihood depends on it.

What makes human resources in the age of the fourth industrial revolution so different?

The biggest difference is the individual ownership of production means. Workers in an auto manufacturing factory do not own the conveyer belt. In the fourth industrial revolution, it is knowledge, potential, experiences and skills that are important, not a means of production. Workers are evaluated by results, not by when they come in and get off work. I’ve never heard of Silicon Valley checking employees’ working hours. That’s because it all comes down to results.

The 52-hour workweek has a lot of problems.

Globally, a gig economy and the expansion of platform workers are inevitable trends. The recommendations include calls for implementing policies that accommodate different types of labor. However, the problem was aggravated after the government introduced the 52-hour workweek to businesses that employ over 50 employees. The majority of start-ups and ventures fall under the policy. How can businesses bring innovation when they might have to close their doors?

The government seems oblivious to this reality.

In my 20s, I worked 100 hours a week for two years. No one told me to. I did it for myself. Some people are like that in start-ups. Forcing a 52-hour workweek on start-ups is nothing more than the government taking away individuals’ rights [to work]. After spending two years like that, I could finally communicate with managers who have worked in the company much longer than I did. That was possible because I was on the same technical level with them thanks to condensed growth.

An expansion of a flextime system might serve as an alternative solution.

People working for start-ups don’t even like that system. The idea of a 52-hour workweek itself collides with reality. It’s inappropriate to draw comparisons with foreign companies. Korea doesn’t have natural resources and has a high openness ratio. The Japanese yen is a world currency, and Germany stands at the center of Europe as a unified nation. It is dangerous to say Korea’s macroeconomics remain strong compared to those countries. On top of that, the Korean market is shrinking due to a low birthrate, and the older generation’s pocket is empty.

As an entrepreneur, what is your advice to the government?

Park Yong-maan, chairman of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, calls the economy an “abandoned child.” Really, the economy and companies feel like they are forgotten children. They are way down the priority list. For Korean people, the economy, which their livelihoods depend on, is the biggest issue. When I talk to young Koreans, what concerns them far more than inter-Korean relations, innovating the prosecution and eradicating corruption is getting jobs. When you ask a new employee about how many of his or her friends have landed jobs, they answer that three or four are still looking. The real unemployment rate should be somewhere around 25 to 30 percent. Priorities set by politics should be recalibrated to reflect the economy.

Tada has been indicted for running an illegal business.

Fundamentally, the mobility business is based on the belief that self-driving cars will arrive soon. In this sense, the issue of innovation being handled by the prosecution is the result of neglect from politicians and the government. I worry whether the operating system of Korea will work properly. The Tada incident is a symbolic case.

BY KIM DONG-HO [kim.byungwook@joongang.co.kr]
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