A present from the prime minister

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A present from the prime minister

Kim Dong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


I recently received a box of books from former Prime Minister Chung Un-chan. It had seven books, all on symbiotic growth. Chung, a former president of Seoul National University and emeritus professor of economics, has been devoted to the concept since serving as prime minister under President Lee Myung-bak. He headed the first symbiotic growth committee launched in 2010. Chung set up an institute after he resigned and hosted more than 70 forums and symposiums on co-prosperity among small and large companies.

Why did he send so many books? I understood his intention after I finally got around to looking through them. He wished to raise an issue that no longer matters under the liberal Moon Jae-in administration. The former prime minister also wanted to underscore the difference between symbiotic growth and Moon’s income-led growth primarily based on an expansion of social welfare for low-income groups.

Still, I asked him about the differences to be sure I understood. Chung said Moon came to him for help when Moon ran for president in 2012 and again in 2017. Chung turned down Moon’s request to help his campaign, as it was “not a good idea for a former dean of Seoul National University to publicly support a presidential candidate.” Later, Chung saw a TV campaign ad by the Moon camp that promised to create a “symbiotic society.” After he was elected in 2017, Moon has never mentioned the concept.

Chung talked about his experience with the Moon administration. While attending a meeting for economic veterans at the Blue House in April 2019, he pointed out that income-led growth based on ensuring a minimum wage is a policy of human rights, not economics. A so-called “inclusive economy,” which the administration links to income-led growth, is not an economic policy either. The concept basically “revolves around big corporations embracing smaller ones.” Simply put, symbiotic growth envisions co-existence and co-prosperity between large and small businesses. “That is a growth policy through corrections in the imbalances caused by capitalism and the market economy,” Chung explained in the meeting of economic veterans at the Blue House.

In the meeting, Chung also said that symbiotic relationships could be misunderstood to have socialist connotations. But the aim is pursuit of both distribution and growth. The common theme of the books he sent me is a companionship based on a joint addressing of economic imbalances and wealth disparities to sustain capitalism and the market economy. There is an African saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

As capitalism deepens, inequalities will inevitably widen. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed these growing disparities more than ever. The weaker class has been hit hardest during these difficult times. With Korea’s daily Covid-19 counts hovering at 1,000, self-employed businesses have lost hope for recovery.

The former prime minister hopes to renew awareness of symbiotic growth. The books’ titles all dwell on the same theme: “Let’s go far together,” “Korean society asks and symbiotic growth answers,” “The Korean renaissance and symbiotic growth,” “The concept of symbiotic growth and capitalism spirit,” “Community and symbiotic growth,” “Symbiotic growth and economic democratization” and “Symbiotic growth, the way to save Korea.”

Despite such explanations, many still confuse income-led growth with symbiotic growth, as both would involve regulating companies, discouraging entrepreneurship, increasing social benefits and passing along the costs to future generations.

But there is a huge difference. In the Korean film “The Front Line” (2011), soldiers from the two Koreas fight endlessly to dominate a hill on the 38th Parallel to determine the dividing line between South and North Korea. The end was a bloodbath bordering on mutual destruction. What use would the occupation of the peak be of when everyone dies? The Moon administration’s policy experiments are similar. They only ended up swelling the number of the unemployed, widening the wealth gap, and fanning real estate prices. It’s a pity that the president did not pay heed to symbiotic growth lectures from the former prime minister.
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