Monday, August 16, 2004
The Korea Herald >[51ST ANNIVERSARY]Where is Korea headed under Roh?
Experts stress national integration needed to make another leap
After a decade of "miraculous" economic growth and dynamic social development, the nation is now facing the challenging question: Is the Republic of Korea sinking?
It is a topic that has attracted a lot of attention as the sagging economy and conflicts in the political and social arenas cloud the government's objectives to double the average national income to $20,000 and become the hub of Northeast Asia.
Some economic experts worry that the nation is slipping into a long-term economic slump similar to the one seen in Japan.
Others say the nation is suffering from melancholia as the bad economic outlook takes its toll on the public's life.
Despite the increasing concerns, ruling and opposition parties are obsessed with engaging in political battles over virtually every issue and have failed to address growing public problems.
The people themselves have been sharply divided, mainly between conservatives and progressives, on major issues concerning the nation.
Against this backdrop, there have been debates over whether the situation is serious enough to be called a crisis.
Optimists say the current negative signs are only temporary because of the international economic environment and the nation's march toward a more liberal society with the changes wrought in political and administrative arenas over the past two years through the presidential election and general elections.
But pessimists say the current situation stems from more fundamental problems as the nation has yet to come up with any concrete and effective development plan after the development model by former President Park Chung-hee, who laid the ground work for the "Miracle of Han River" in the 1960s and 1970s.
Regardless of how one defines the current situation, most political and economic experts agree it is urgent for the nation to restore stability and integration in politics and society for it to take another leap.
In throes of social change
Leaders of pro-democracy movements in the 1980s have emerged as a major political force through the April parliamentary elections. The liberal Uri Party became a majority parliamentary bloc and the Democratic Labor Party entered the National Assembly for the first time.
With these two parties accounting for 161 of the total 299 seats, the liberal politicians have taken a series of measures to change the nation.
Some are attempting to abolish the anti-communist National Security Law and conduct a broad investigation into human rights violations by past governments. On the diplomatic front, they urge more independence from Washington and closer ties with Pyongyang.
"It is the first time that pro-democracy forces became the majority group in parliament by itself. They are shifting the direction of the nation to what they have pursued outside the National Assembly," said Kim Hyung-joon, vice director of the Korean Social Science Data Center.
Pro-democratic figures have been a leading parliamentary group since the 1992 general elections, but to gain more weight they had to form a coalition with so-called industrialization forces who focused more on development than democracy. Thus, many of the items on their wish-lists had to be delayed, Kim said.
But recent attempts for the changes by progressives met big challenges from conservatives.
The main opposition Grand National Party said the Roh Moo-hyun administration and the ruling Uri Party are threatening the nation's identity by taking radical measures.
GNP Chairwoman Park Geun-hye said it was hard to find a solution to the current economic difficulties due to the government's "leftist policies and people's uneasiness that the policy is going to socialism." Critics of the government have said Roh's policy focused on distribution rather than growth.
The Uri Party refuted this, saying a series of reform measures by the Roh administration has been aimed at establishing "true market economy."
The public is as sharply divided as the politicans.
Gwanghwamun street in the heart of Seoul had been the site of two contradictory demonstrations by citizens whenever crucial national issues emerge - Korea's dispatch of additional troops to Iraq, the realignment of U.S. soldiers in South Korea, and the impeachment of President Roh.
"Currently, Korea is suffering conflicts: conservatives vs. progressives, industrialization forces vs. democratization forces, the over 50s vs. the 20s and 30s," professor Lee Jung-hee at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies said.
"But the conflicts are not all that bad because they remained dormant but now have been expressed," he said.
Lack of effective development model
Others say current difficulties are the result of a systemic and longer-term problem.
"The nation lost 25 years because Korean society and politics have remained in an extremely confrontational structure after the dictatorship of former President Park," said former Health Minister and Hanseo University professor Lee Tae-bok, author of a book titled "Is the Republic of Korea Sinking?"
Lee said the Korean public had used up its energy fighting to democratize the nation after Park's assassination in 1979 and during the militant rule of former President Chun Doo-hwan from 1980 and 1988, and was unable to establish a viable and comprehensive economic development model.
"Korea has failed to set a new strategy to overcome the limitations of Park's development model and economic growth under the dictatorial development model was extended," Lee said.
Former Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung presented their own plans but the nation saw a continuation of Park's model, which can be summed as mainly government-led economic development, he added.
The Roh administration initiated measures to innovate and upgrade the country. Autonomy, decentralization and a project to make Korea the hub of Northeast Asia are at the center of their grand plan to raise the national income to $20,000 per head.
"We had the dream of industrialization and modernization in the 1960s, and then democratization. Now the dream of the participatory (Roh) government is to emerge as the central force of Northeast Asia, ending the long history of remaining just a frontier," chief presidential policymaker Kim Byong-joon said.
Critics, however, say the vision lacks substance. The government also faces huge obstacles in implementing the plan as opposition forces are strongly against the relocation of the administrative capital from Seoul to South Chungcheong Province, which the government says is the backbone of its hub project.
"President Roh should create a democratic development model, which will transcend the Park model and fits the era of globalization," professor Kim Ho-ki at Yonsei University said.
Clear policy goal
One of the biggest challenges faced by policymakers would be to clarify whether they put top priority on promoting economic growth or distributing social wealth, analysts said.
Since President Roh took office in February 2002, there has been a fruitless debate over the main policy goal of the new administration.
Roh's close aides, including Presidential Policy Planning Committee Chairman Lee Joung-woo, called for a fairer distribution of wealth to reduce increasing income gaps between the haves and the have-nots.
But other key policymakers like Finance Minister Lee Hun-jai said increasing the size of the pie is more important than sharing it for a country like Korea that still has room for high growth.
Such conflict and confusion have led to a delay in deciding and implementing major economic policies, which became a drag on the slowing economy.
One of the reasons people and companies are not spending more is because they feel the future is uncertain. And this is partly because the government has failed to say what kind of economic policy goals it is pursing," said Chung Moon-keun, head of the Economic Trends Department at Samsung Economic Research Institute.
Some critics are even questioning the ideological identity of the Roh administration in pursuing key economic policies.
An influential scholar blamed what he calls an "egalitarian" tendency in the Korean society for its economic malaise, adding a new twist to an ideological debate in political circles.
"Egalitarianism, the political view supporting equalization of outcomes, tends towards economic digression," said Jwa Sung-hee, president of Korea Economic Research Institute, an adjunct to the
Federation of Korean Industries.
Ahn Kook-shin, a professor at Chungang University, also criticized the Roh administration as being trapped in leftist values that are the main source of social, political and economic uncertainties.
"With a warm heart that emphasizes fairness before efficiency and distribution before growth, we cannot improve our national competitiveness and our country will stay in the lower category of the era globalization era that divides the haves and the have-nots by a portion of 15 to 85," he said.
Leadership for national integration
Experts want the Roh administration to provide an environment to become the hub of Northeast Asia first by revitalizing the economy and integrating the nation.
"The important point is not the goal of become the Northeast Asia hub itself, but action plans and political choices for that," former Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo said.
Lee said Korea should make an all-out effort to forge creative and competitive economic policies and secure the security of the Korean Peninsula.
"Our strategy can be justified only when we show boldness and concentration to win over both China and Japan," Lee said.
With politicians and the public divided on almost all of major issues, leadership in integrating the nation is urged.
"President Roh should demonstrate leadership of uniting the public rather than that of provoking conflicts as he now does," Lee Tae-bok said.
Roh has stressed he would pursue politics of integration when he returned to office in May following a two-month hiatus due to the opposition's abortive impeachment. But criticism remains that he has still not worked with both supporters and opponents to end national divisions.
"We need to overcome the dichotomic thinking and should embrace the good points of each side to advance the nation," said professor Kwon Young-june at Kyung Hee University.
By Seo Hyun-jin and Sim Sung-tae