Stuck in the past

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Stuck in the past

Yeom Jae-ho
The author is an emeritus professor and former president of Korea University.


Over the past decade, Korean politics have done us no good. As Korea’s economy exponentially grew and the entire world praised our culture, the political domain fell deeper into an abyss and failed to look after our nation and people. For every blunder, the Moon Jae-in administration deflected blame to its predecessor. The former Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations were no different. They, too, pressed their predecessors about the tiniest mistakes and straight up refused to acknowledge their achievements. Many former presidents, during this process, either committed suicide or ended up in prison. For how long will this drama series of vengeance last?

There are no signs of cooperative politics in Korea. Extreme conflicts abound. Korean politicians are hell-bent on dividing the country to gain whatever political interests they can. Instead of solving our problems, they’re making new ones every single day. Lawmakers create new laws and regulations just to score more political points from their supporters. Parliamentary audits are doing nothing but blasting the other side or defending their own, and hardly can we see reasonable criticism being made or constructive solutions being built.

Korean politics are blindfolding the public from looking into the future. The administration endlessly tries to dig up any wrongdoings from past governments, punish what it calls “pro-Japanese forces” and disband chaebol companies. Rather than preparing for the future, the administration spent most of its time attacking opponents.

The Korean society grows more agitated as politicians fail to offer a vision for a better future. Young adults bet their entire youth on studying for a job in the public sector or a conglomerate. They strive to secure a stable job rather than hoping to share jobs with others through a flexible labor force. An open recruitment for a conglomerate is as competitive as the old gwageo exams during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), a civil service test people took to climb the social ladder. Today, only 2 percent of students who take the ninth-grade civil service exam become qualified, yet nearly 300,000 apply for it while spending years studying in hagwons (private cram schools). Their precious time and resources are being wasted.

Some 340,000 people applied for this year’s state-run real estate agent test. A while ago, when rumors spread the government could adopt a real estate IT system in its Korean New Deal, the brokers fiercely protested, claiming their right to live was at risk. High-level government officials lament that politicians refuse to back an online apartments trading system for fear of enraging interest groups. Every year, Korea adds nearly 20,000 new real estate brokers. In subways and on television, young people are constantly exposed to hagwon advertisements promoting prep courses to become a real estate agent or a ninth-grade civil servant. The future of IT and artificial intelligence (AI) is headed our way, yet services like Uber and Tada are tethered to the past due to opposition from taxi drivers.

Over the past 10 years, the Ministry of Education tried to normalize high school public education by allowing students to use their so-called student life record books for college admissions, which detail each student’s extracurricular activities and teacher assessments. This allowed classrooms to focus more on critical thinking debates rather than on multiple-choice tests, and more on teachers’ assessments of their kids rather than scrambling for the CSAT.

The government tried to encourage universities to select freshmen based on diversity, in part by funding their hiring of admissions officers in charge of evaluating applicant talent and potential in their respective fields. When this so-called admissions officer track was first introduced, some parents tried to covertly pull strings. The program was finally starting to stabilize until the government decided to return to a CSAT-based college admissions system after former Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s daughter’s admissions scandal erupted.

When one falls into a trap of the past, they become distracted by what went right or wrong, making it impossible to look to the future. Anyone or any society that acts this way can never move forward. Politicians who do not dream of a future, companies that do not contemplate the future and a government that does not prepare for the future are all bound to fall behind. Without creative destruction of the past, one can never create a future.

What future are the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and main opposition People Power Party (PPP) envisioning? Do they really serve the nation? Many politicians dream about becoming the next president, but barely anyone dreams about the future of Korea. What can we expect from a party that dreams about a long-term rule and another party that dreams about merely reclaiming rule? Both the DP and PPP — each of which is supported by roughly 40 percent and 20 percent of the people, respectively — must pay attention to the remaining 30 percent who supports neither side. The only way to obtain their endorsement is to break the shackles of the past and present concrete steps for the future.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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