Leaving Fantasy Island

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Leaving Fantasy Island

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


The South Korean series “Squid Game” has become the most watched Netflix drama. Everybody’s talking about it and CNN and the BBC have covered its success. The wave of Korean entertainment successes continues as BTS tops the Billboard and other global music charts and following the success of Korean films “Parasite” and “Minari.” Netflix shares have hit all-time highs thanks to “Squid Game.”

The drama portrays debt-ridden, hopeless people from different walks of life invited to a deadly survival game with a 45.6-billion-won ($38.2 million) prize. They are tempted with exits from a loser’s life if they simply play a game well. Each protagonist take up the life-or-death challenge. They learn of the dire consequences under autocratic rule. Those defeated in a series of games are ruthlessly killed by the game administrators. The players cannot protest as they have voluntarily joined the contest and agreed to play by the rules.

The grand prize money is earned through the cost of the lives of 455 other contestants. The game reflects the extremities of an ever-competitive society rather than delivering a catharsis in a fantasy reward. Some come to their senses upon realizing the cruelty of the games and give up. But the addictive charm of the prize money draws the drop-outs back to the game.

Once a presidential race begins, contestants promise political fantasies. Former President Lee Myung-bak promised to achieve economic growth of 7 percent, per capita income of $40,000 and to make the country the seventh biggest economy: that was his so-called 747 vision. He also vowed to create 3 million jobs, halve youth joblessness, ease social inequalities through symbiotic growth and create a grand canal across the peninsula. His successor President Park Geun-hye also pledged to unite the people, achieve a democratic economy, provide affordable housing and deliver what she called a “national jackpot” through unification. Few of the sweet promises feeding the fantasies of voters were realized.

President Moon Jae-in installed a job situation board at the Blue House in a show of will to carry out his campaign promise to prioritize job creation. He offered to move out of the presidential residence to the government building in Gwanghwamun to mingle with ordinary citizens and share presidential power. He promised to enhance the alliance with the U.S. to strengthen security. Furthermore, he pledged to stabilize real estate prices, phase out nuclear reactors, upgrade contract workers to permanent jobs, attain peace and security with North Korea, and create an “unexperienced” country through Green New Deal projects. His dreamy promises fizzled out in the face of cruel realities.

Policymaking to solve social problems isn’t easy. Since a public policy needs to untangle the complexities of reality, it can face unexpected hurdles and end up in undesired results despite a benign intent. As a new policy breaks the existing order to create a new one, it can benefit some but at a fatal cost to others.

Moon’s policy to phase out nuclear plants had the benign intent of removing the danger of nuclear accidents after the meltdown in Fukushima. But it caused serious consequences of wrecking the nuclear power industry, spiking electricity costs and production costs from renewable energy or coal power generators. A reckless push in judicial reforms also caused confusion. The oppressive cap on redevelopment projects stoked inflation in apartment prices in Gangnam, southern Seoul. 26 sets of real estate measures all ended up doing more harm than good.

It is more difficult to execute a policy than come up with one. In the book “Implementation,” co-authored by Jeffrey Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky, the authors describe how great expectations in Washington had be dashed in the process of implementing a development project in Oakland, California. The massive project aimed at solving unemployment in the port city near San Francisco through harbor enhancement flopped dramatically.

Voters are drawn into the fantasy spell of politicians in a presidential election season. Upon disillusionment and sense of betrayal, we criticize the presidents we voted for toward the end of their terms. The contestants of the upcoming presidential election also vie to bring voters into their fantasy worlds. They promise basic incomes, free world trips, 1-million-won checks to college graduates, housing at cheap rates, and construction of golf courses and apartment complexes that are not feasible.

To stave off the temptation of falling into delusion, voters must study expert evaluations of campaign platforms instead of being lured into the games of TV debates. Voters must pay attention to candidates who promise to build a society where individuals’ abilities pay off instead of dreaming of a jackpot.

Free rides can bring about a greater cost. We must be awakened to stop ourselves to be drawn back into the fantasy game.
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