Stuck in the past

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Stuck in the past

 Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


A CEO of a renowned pharmaceutical company told me how he had been awed by the flood of applicants from elite universities for the job openings for salespersons. He asked a graduate from Seoul National University with a business management degree if he was really serious about the job. He answered he would devote himself to the job for life if he was hired.

Even if they end up landing a job after the nightmarish job-finding procedure, young Koreans cannot dream of getting married due to sky-high apartment prices. Korea’s fertility rate is at the world’s bottom of 0.84. The Peterson Institute for International Economics warned that Korea’s thinning working population could deal a greater blow to the economy than Covid-19.

To the young generation, the national pension that provides some comfort to their parents seems like nothing but a scam. They pay their pension premiums out of their monthly paychecks, but little will be left when their time to receive the payments arrives. National pension reserves are projected to peak at 1,774 trillion won ($1.5 trillion) in 2042 and dry out by 2057. Lee Chang-soo, incoming chairman of the Korea Pension Association (KPA), warned of an uprising by the future generation sooner or later.

Presidential candidates from both the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and opposition People Power Party (PPP) have no interest in creating a different future for the country. They are mired in the past as that’s a field they are used to for a mud fight for votes. Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung suddenly exposed that Lee Nak-yon, former prime minister and frontrunner in the ruling camp, had voted for the impeachment of former President Roh Moo-hyun in 2007 when he was a lawmaker. Lee Nak-yon insisted he had not. Chung Sye-kyun, another former prime minister and a presidential aspirant, said he had sat tightly at the National Assembly speaker’s seat to block the impeachment. Who’s judging who after the past 14 years of political landscape change?

South Gyeongsang Governor Kim Kyoung-soo, a member of the inner circle of President Moon Jae-in, was found guilty by the Supreme Court for getting involved in an online opinion rigging scheme to support Moon ahead of the 2017 presidential election. Online opinion manipulation is a serious crime that shakes the foundations of democracy. Yet Moon didn’t apologize. All presidential candidates from the DP came to Gov. Kim’s defense. They are trapped in the besieged fortress syndrome in which blaming others for all problems prevails over any self-reflection. There is no future if reason and common sense are denied in politics.

Presidential hopefuls from the PPP also lack messages for the future. They are merely attacking the Moon administration. Front-runner Yoon Seok-youl, former prosecutor general, expressed outrage against the sitting power when he met with Kaist students majoring in nuclear engineering, a start-up CEO, restaurant owner and realtor. In Daegu — homeplace of impeached conservative President Park Geun-hye — Yoon spoke apologetically of investigating Park as a prosecutor to win favor with die-hard conservatives in the city. Yoon’s remarks embarrassed PPP Chairman Lee Jun-seok, who publicly upheld the legitimacy of her impeachment, even though he had been recruited by Park after graduating from Harvard. The more they are stuck in the past, the farther they will be able to conceptualize a future.

Gyeonggi Gov. Lee wants to achieve an idealistic future if he becomes the president. He promised to hand out 2 million won to young people and 1 million won in universal monthly basic incomes to every citizen. But the idea requires 57 trillion won a year, one tenth of the annual budget. The plan is ineffective, wasteful and cannot last.

Former PPP lawmaker Yoo Seong-min has promised to reform national pensions. Without raising premiums and reducing payouts, the pension system will go bankrupt in 2057 or taxpayers would have to cough out 30 percent of their incomes to sustain the pensions. The tax burden could shoot up to 60 percent of their incomes. Yoon Seok-myung, current chairman of the KPA, warned the country could be doomed at this pace. Former Rep. Yoo is the only candidate who cares for the sustainable future of the country regardless of the unpopularity of the idea.

Former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun ordered his health and welfare minister Rhyu Si-min to redesign the pension system to lower the payouts. Former conservative President Park Geun-hye fixed the deficit-ridden public employees pension to raise premiums and lower the payouts. The work would save 185 trillion won in tax for 30 years. Former Presidents Roh and Park made their decisions despite the political risks involved. But incumbent President Moon goes backward. History will tell which leader helped the nation’s future.

People are sick of launching campaigns based on attacks on the past of other presidential contenders or the government. Contestants must fight for the future with their vision for their country and future generation. They should be ashamed of turning a blind eye to the future.
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