Where is the country headed?
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The first things I noticed when traveling in Japan were how clean the streets were and how friendly the people were. Remote places were no exception. Overall, commercial order is pleasant. In the feudal era, samurai were allowed to kill merchants for fraud if they found flaws in the goods they ordered. Naturally, suppliers did their best to make goods, and their feudal lords paid what they asked. They considered bargaining a disgraceful act. The tradition seems to remain today.
A survey shows that Chinese visitors to Korea receive a similar impression. They are surprised that streets are clean and people are friendly. They even purchase products of the same brands that can be found in Beijing, because they have distrust in stores in China. Korea used to be the same. Probably due to such perceptions, there are claims that Korea, China and Japan follow the same path, one after another. The Mitsubishi Research Institute came up with a calculation that the gap is 30 years.
Controversy over Japan’s lost two decades has a similar context. The starting point is the premise that because Asia followed Japan’s development model, countries will have a similar trajectory of growth. Of course, there are counterarguments — especially n politics. Japan had 15 prime ministers in 10 years at the time. The parliament dissolved often, and during every election, populist promises were made. It was the opposite of the imperial presidential system. Korea is a country where those who received a Ph.D. in the United States have formidable power. The American mindset and decision-making process is actually not compatible with Japan.
But looking at how things are going, it is not entirely incorrect. The populist promises were on par with Japanese politics at the time. Government spending is an example. About 50 trillion won ($43 billion) in cash welfare has been planned. Next year, half of Korea’s households will live on government subsidies. The Moon Jae-in administration takes the credit, but the money is sovereign debt and taxpayer’s burden. The National Assembly — which must block it — is simply watching with arms crossed, while turning the legislature into arguably the worst-ever vegetative state in our democracy. In Japan, political uncertainty led to the government’s failure. In Korea, the government’s failure led to political uncertainty. This is like déjà vu, just in a different order.
Japan is different now. Having learned from its mistakes, the second Abe cabinet is skimming off the slump. But Korea is building a stronger wall against the politics that Japan had struggled with. If the electoral reforms are passed by the National Assembly, it would be more difficult to change the current political structure through an election. Those pursuing a change want a ruling party majority regardless of winning or losing the election. The ruling power’s original slogan to prevent wasted votes has disappeared. The revision has been redrafted so many times that an average voter cannot understand what has changed and why. The ruling Democratic Party does not care about the main opposition Liberty Korea Party. They just want to establish the rules of the game to benefit themselves and push them as a reform.
What I find more absurd is a bill to establish a special investigative agency for high-level officials. The bill started out to investigate the living power, but too many cooks have spoiled the broth. In the new bill, the president appoints the head of the extra law enforcement body which will also investigate families and close aides of the president. Rather than looking into corruption related to the liberal administration, the new investigative agency can easily turn into bodyguards for the president. It does not go well with a president with divided power. It is an agency for an imperial president. Chinese President Xi Jinping, too, has the powerful National Supervisory Commission under his jurisdiction.
The Chinese can tolerate injustice but not disadvantage. But Korea is different. Courtesy and sense of shame come first. It is different from the Western gentleman in form, but Korea is still a country of nobility. That’s how people are, but not the politics. During the Moon presidency, former National Assembly speaker abandoned dignity to serve as prime minister of the executive branch, and a former ruling party head was appointed as justice minister.
As our economy begins to resemble Japan’s slump, our politics are getting similar to China’s. So I have questions. Are we really okay? Can we be directionless like this for long?
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 26, Page 30