A country never experienced
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in was elected in May 2017 and enjoyed a phenomenal approval rating of 90 percent with a promise to unite the people and build a “livable” country. But today, the country is in wretched shape across the board from the economy to security. When he was the head of the opposition, he accused the Park Geun-hye administration of being the “super spreader” of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in June 2015, an indictment of its poorly handling of the outbreak of the exotic virus. He blamed the conservative administration for putting people’s lives at stake through its incompetence and irresponsibility. After he took office, his government dedicated itself to eliminating the so-called past evils, the legacy of past conservative governments. We hoped his government would do better to protect the people from a disease disaster. Those hopes have been dashed.
The entire nation is in a panic. The Korean Medical Association raised warnings six times about the danger of people from China coming to Korea. But the government declared the disease would go away soon and left our borders open. How does that differ from the crew of the Sewol ferry ordering passengers to stay in their cabins while the ship was sinking? The outrage has reached a boiling point. When asked by the president how her business was, a shopkeeper honestly answered it was awful. She was soon bombarded with attacks from Moon loyalists.
All the madness reminds us of the strange trajectory of the Moon administration over the past three years. The president repeatedly talked of equality, fairness and justice. As seen in the case of the disgraced former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, this government also has been in “a frenzy of hypocrisy, pomposity and incompetence.”
People have become vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. The virus scare has worsened business conditions for mom-and-pop stores. The shopkeeper’s answer that her business was crappy underscores their desperation. As data from Statistics Korea showed, business incomes for families with more than two members froze at 892,000 won ($733) a month in the final quarter of 2019, shriveling for five consecutive quarters.
The virus disaster has pushed our self-employed population to the cliff-edge. The government keeps saying the economy is getting better. But companies are loath to invest or hire employees due to a dramatic surge in labor costs as a result of sharp increases in the minimum wage and other anti-market policies of this administration. The restaurant sector is in the danger of a chain bankruptcies. Companies are sending business overseas. Many offices have stopped having after-work drinks or dinners because of the rigid enforcement of a 52-hour workweek. The coronavirus was but the final blow, and as with a human being, it hits the already-weakened the hardest. That’s what happened with our wretched economy.
Elected public officials, government employees, and workers at large companies will get their monthly paychecks no matter how bad the economy is. They are safe unless there is a war. But merchants living off daily earnings are in a different world altogether. Their livelihoods depend on daily revenues. Their pain worsens if people stay home.
Stores are empty. The economy is stumbling. Tax revenues last year were 7 trillion won short even though Korea was the only country among developed economies to raise its corporate tax rate. Because corporate sentiment is in the dumps, private spending stays sluggish. The government is packaging a supplementary budget. But more spending by the government cannot revive an economy on its own.
As the government has been profligate with spending, the national debt increased by 100 trillion won. It is becoming a parasite living off the futures of the young. Our politics are in disarray and our relationships with traditional allies — the United States and Japan — are at nadirs. The North Korean nuclear problem has not gotten better. It’s gotten worse. South Korea has become as bad as China as a danger zone for the new coronavirus. Is this the “country we have never experienced” that the president promised to create at the beginning of his term? A responsible leader would admit to his folly and apologize. That might be the beginning of a new start. But we’re not holding our breath.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 26, Page 30