Can Korea Become a Welfare State? Netizens Discuss

Political cartoon by Lee Hee-jae in the liberal-leaning Hankyoreh, a leading South Korean newspaper.

The article below on Korean welfare, from the Ddanzi Ilbo, was published in late October. Although the presidential election climate has changed since then, this is an excellent introduction to the state of the Korean welfare system, a topic that is one of the most prominent election issues, and is one of the most pressing concerns being dealt with by Korean society today.

As our readers will know, Korea underwent fairly rapid economic development and political changes in the latter half of the 20th Century, and new social challenges therefore await this newly transformed modern society.

Presidential candidates from both ruling and opposition parties have been using rhetoric that speaks of ‘economic democratization’, ie policy that will regulate Korea’s super industries, the Chaebols.

This article takes the format of an op-ed –– it’s long but, using informal language, offers an excellent introduction to a topic on the tip of a lot of Korean tongues at the moment.

From the Ddanzi Ilbo:

Is Welfare Viable in Korea?

1. Election – meaningless stage for political quarrels alienated from discourses on political economics

Presidential candidates. Dr. Ahn Cheol-su on the right eventually withdrew his candidacy.

Presidential candidates. Independent Ahn Cheol-soo on the right eventually withdrew his candidacy.

As the congressional and presidential election period begins, while both ruling and opposition parties are advocating ‘welfare’ and ‘economic democratization’, the eye-catching issues stimulating the public are gossipy scandals and negatives on the presidential candidates.

Frankly speaking, issues like Ahn Cheol-soo‘s room salong scandal blackmailed by Jung Joon-gil and Park Geun-hye‘s remark on 5.16 People’s Revolutionary Party Incident seem to be nothing more than useless bickering in political games.

The opposition party’s fussy attempt to make Park Geun-hye look like ‘Yushin Witch’ is an equal act of douchebaggery as the Saenuri Party‘s desperate mudslinging at Ahn Cheol-soo. The Democratic United Party (DUP) and Moon Jae-in‘s dragging on injustices during the Yushin period to defame Park Geun-hye may have some effect in drawing supporters, but they don’t realize they cage themselves in the backward-looking 70 and 80s frame.

As the presidential election gets imminent, it is obvious that political parties will not show anything more than acts of political engineering where they seek to effectively rake over the opponents’ flaws. It is also more than obvious that each party’s supporters will dutifully follow such lead and curse at the opponents as if it is a shortcut to realization of justice.

No wonder they try to figure out why the opposition party failed only from the political engineering aspect. It is not surprising that American Democratic Party’s ideologist and linguist George Lakoff‘s book “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” is read like a bible by them. Instead of seriously reflecting on how citizens’ life has changed, they conclude that they just lost in the ‘frame war’ in their political engineering assessment.

It is clear why American Democrats and Korean opposition party lose or win over their conservative counterparts. Whether they seized power or not, there was no difference in common people’s living standards.

I covered Korea’s situation in details in the last article so let’s briefly go over America’s case.

With the dollar’s worth in 2007 as the reference, American worker’s hourly wage increased from $18.9 in 1973 to $21.3 in 2006. For 33 years, only a little more than 2 dollars increased. Practically, American workers’ wages barely increased from the 70s.

Instead, there has been a drastic change in the wage gap between CEOs and the working class. In the 60 and 70s, the ratio was about 30~40:1. In the 90s, it became 100:1 and in the 2000s, it even became as dramatic as 300~400:1.

After the unprecedented financial crisis that originated from America, the American reformist atmosphere with the new Obama administration was comparable to that when Pres. Roh Moo-hyun was elected in Korea. However, it took only one year until the American citizens’ hope turned into despair. Both countries took surprisingly identical routes. That is, the policies that betrayed the supporters, the impotent reforms behind the fancy reformist rhetoric and blame-shifting to the conservatives…

The health care reform that Obama tried to implement with full strength couldn’t even touch the edge of private insurance companies and they indiscriminately salvaged speculative capitals that caused the financial crisis, which ridiculously fattened the financial companies. For the low-income bracket people who were suffering from the crisis, the administration could only come up with impotent policies. The year-long ‘Occupy Wall Street‘ movement could not propel any reforms. In short, Obama was no different from being ‘Black Bush’.

It was a predictable result that hopeless American citizens ‘judged’ the Democratic Party in the midterm elections. This exactly overlaps with the situation where the Our Open Party was defeated by the Hannara [Saenuri] Party in the by-elections during the Roh Moo-hyun administration.

In that sense, the conservatives who explicitly advocate neoliberal policies such as ‘tax reduction for the rich’ and ‘small government, big market’ seem even more honest. In fact, from the ‘frame war’ point of view, you can argue that the DUP, who is barely different from the conservative groups in terms of political economics, is more competent at making ideological frauds. They have succeeded only in creating confrontational angles such as good vs. evil, conservative vs. reformist, and corrupt vs. conscientious.

However, truth be told, it is unclear how they can label themselves as good, reformist and conscientious. During election periods, instead of dealing with citizens’ practical problems, they end up focusing on scandals that make the opponents look like bastards.

Some would probably say “pledges on economic policies and such aren’t debated much because they are difficult to digest for the general public.”

However, if you take a look at issues such as ‘4 major reform legislations’ and Korea-US FTA during Roh administration, and the US beef candle protest and the recent controversies about free lunch for elementary schools during Lee Myung-bak administration, it is deceptive to insist discourses on policies do not appeal to the public.

Belatedly, the DUP came up with slogans like ‘economic democratization’, ‘welfare state’, ‘chaebol reform’, etc. Whether they are right or wrong, they don’t show much details or passion. In addition, it is hard to see how their policies are different from those pledged by the Hannara [Saenuri] Party whereas Park Geun-hye rather has a strong stance in this.

It is simple why scandals overwhelm political outlooks during this election period. It is because currently there is not much clashing between the ruling and opposition parties in terms of their policies.

A while ago, Cheon Jeong-bae agreed that they should learn how to organize from the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) and policies from the New Progressive Party (NPP). This plainly revealed the DUP’s current state. Let’s take a look at the policy part.

It is legally required that more than 30% of the state subsidies given to each party be used for policy development. The DLP, who entered their first-ever session in the 17th National Assembly, really did use over 30% for policy development. The amount of subsidies was only 200~300 million won because it is proportional to the number of seats. Despite their low salary, tens of policy researchers worked together to develop methods to realize policies such as ‘free health care’, ‘tax reform’, ‘national university network’, ‘rental housing’, etc.

Later on, the NPP became a strong policy maker because when the DLP suffered the ‘jongpuk‘ controversy, most of their researchers went to the NPP.

On the other hand, the 17th Our Open Party and the 18th DUP received over 10 times more subsidies but they haven’t offered any distinctive policy for the people’s livelihood. As ‘welfare’ has entered the spirit of the age, they in haste even had to copy the polices pledged by the DLP 8 years ago.

As the Saenuri Party claims the conservative forefront, their basic stance might be that they will just patch up the current social structure. What on earth is the reform-insisting DUP doing then? There is no practical blueprint for what they will do when they are elected. They simply put the rhetoric of ‘reform’ on the existing frame. This makes them vulnerable to arrows of disillusionment.

I really want to ask the opposition party’s passionate supporters full of maddening righteousness and ‘sincerity’. What is the true objective in politics that you think of? Is it your political duty to prevent the ‘specific group’ from seizing power and ‘critically support’ the other party for over 20 years?

From what I have observed, your fundamental motivation for supporting the opposition party comes from the consumptive objective, which is to oppose anti-democratic power since ’87, rather than constructive goals such as ‘to make life better’ or ‘to achieve something’. With this mindset, ‘critical support’ ends up being ‘unconditional support’.

What makes this little hooligan exercise his middle finger?

As a result, an election always turns into a huge adrenaline-rushing sport event where you passionately cheer for your team and stomp on your opponents. Fandom replaces the space for politics. Seeing the DUP’s state after the congressional election, I don’t think it will be much different for the presidential election. That’s why I am somewhat cynical about this upcoming presidential election.

2. I look forward to the 3rd political force with a new spirit of the age.

Although I am a little cynical about this election, I don’t take the circumstances surrounding it lightly. It’s actually the opposite.

From a worldwide perspective, neoliberal order, which replaced Keynesianism after the 70s and had power for 30 years, has withered away since the financial crisis in 2008. In the same vein in Korea, free market capitalism, which replaced the modernization movement in the 70s and came in full force in the 90s, died down after severe polarization.

In other words, the winner-take-all market triumphalism after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which promoted venture business fever and real-estate madness under the motto ‘be rich’ as symbolized by the best-sellers such as ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad‘ and ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘, is ending with a legacy of unprecedented household debts exceeding 1000 trillion won.

This confession from a businessman of 486 activist generation in an interview with the Hankyoreh newspaper last year is suggestive.

First of all, I want to fess up an illusion that our generation had. We equated political freedom with free economic competition. Covertly, we mistook neoliberalism for an extension of political freedom. We sat back and watched free competition turning into dominance. As a result, for the last 20 years, it seems our corporations have got bigger and our society has become affluent but strangely, individuals feel life is more tough. What on earth has happened in the meantime? We began to reflect on it. A dramatic expression of such frustrations is the Ahn Cheol-soo syndrome. In the same spirit, the book ‘Justice: What’s the right thing to do?‘ has sold more than a million copies last year in Korea. Now 386 generation people, who are about to turn 50, are returning to the original question they had in the first place.

Slogans like ‘citizens, be successful’ and ‘new town’ in the last elections made a sharp turn to ‘economic democratization’ and ‘welfare state’ only after 4 or 5 years. What caused it? That is the spirit of the age resisting the market capitalism that has expanded for the past 20~30 years.

If you agree that it is time to demand a new spirit to change the shades in Korean society after 30 years for industrialization and another 30 years for democratization, you would find a unique meaning from this upcoming election.

However, seeing the behavior of the political groups that represented ‘industrialization’ and ‘democratization’, I doubt they have the willpower and ability to realize this new mission. Their political agendas and pledges are far from dealing with the problems that need to be solved in today’s Korean society.

Then, before considering the feasibility, the best we can hope for is the advent of a new political force. I cannot help but look forward to a completely new political group that isn’t tied down to binary ideological confrontations about democracy and different from the ‘progressive party’ that has degenerated into an alumni association of NL-PD activists. When will you stop trying to find the key only around the street lamp just because it’s bright there?

3. Let’s look at Korean society with an eye of a kid looking at a naked king.

Alvin Toffler’s “Revolutionary Wealth”

Alvin Toffler: The most incomprehensible thing about Korea is that their education is going backward. Korean students spend 15 hours at school and hagwon to learn knowledge that won’t be necessary in the future or for jobs that don’t even exist. They are wasting precious time.

Korean Society on Crack

There is only one reason for demanding the 3rd political force despite the existing progressive party. It is because there is no political party that can see straight through the socioeconomic ordeals that distort Korean society and fundamentally improve people’s livelihood.

It is outrageous to watch the arguments going on in current politics, considering the situation where the working class is pushed to the limit. Let’s forget about the issues mainstream intellectuals and media deal with. Let’s calmly contemplate from where we stand. Is Park Geun-hye’s past deeds or merging candidates really concerning your life? Are you familiar with what slogans like ‘economic democratization’ and ‘welfare state’ that each candidate put up really mean? Do you think they can be a fundamental solution to the socioeconomic pain that Korean society suffers?

Apart from any political stance, just from scratch, sit down and think about the problems that constantly affect our life and inflict pain on us.

Insane education fever and costs, wage gap between industries, lack of social safety net, plunderous high interest for the working class and their astronomical household debt, flooding of small businesses, low-quality jobs, etc. It is surprising that these life problems that distress common people haven’t been properly addressed in the political agenda so far.

Especially after the late 90s when the norm of lifelong employment has collapsed and shareholder capitalism emerged at the forefront, the devastating triangle of a million unemployed people, 7 million temporary workers and 6 million small business owners and the bizarre triple crown of OECD top suicide rate, lowest birth rate and longest working hours have opened the Hell Gate for Korean society. Let’s take a look at what measures our politicians suggest.

Free lunch, halved tuitions, limiting operation hours of big retailers and hogwons, limiting the duration of temporary job positions to 2 years, independent high schools, hosting foreign universities…

If your frontal brain is functioning properly, you will realize this is not different from applying bandages to treat appendicitis. Even that is hyped up as some great policy-making while politicians argue back and forth. What’s even more ridiculous is that civic society and activists blindly follow those petty issues.

Did the naked king drink too much beer?

From the perspective of a child looking at a naked king, let’s not give in to any authority and think about causes and solutions for the problems with common sense.

Worship of educational background leading to the Hell Gate

For an average Korean household that has children, the biggest expense is likely to be education costs, especially for private education. Both low-income and middle-class families are under a similar level of stress because if they earn more, they pour more money into ‘better quality’ education.

Middle-class kids are sent to English kindergartens right after they begin to read letters. They grow up taking hagwon and private lessons. After they enter university, they take ESL courses abroad to build their ‘specs‘. The amount of education costs until they stand on their own feet can be on par with some salarymen’s lifetime wage.

Look at this recent statistics. According to a survey on Seoulites, 37% of school parents spend over 900,000 won and 70% of them spend more than 500,000 won for private education.

Polarization of the exam race

Private education expenses have been accused by all walks of life of being the main culprit behind the low birth rate, disrupting retirement plans and massively burdening household budgets. Also, polarization of education along with succession of wealth has been intensified.

“If you are not good at studying, you should pursue something else but there are not enough alternatives.”

Korean education industry might have the only market that consumes an astronomical amount of money every year but makes everyone unhappy. Students get sick and tired of long hours spent for studying and parents are staggered by tuitions. Everyone, except for the minority who enter the named universities, becomes a loser in this race.

“Top 20 universities’ admission limit: top 7.4% students”
“SKY universities’ [3 elite schools in Seoul] admission limit: 10,248 students”

“1.4% of the total university entrance exam writers enter the SKY universities.”

Although widespread social grievance against this crazy zero-sum game has reached a critical point, solutions are not in sight. Nobody believes it will be resolved even though politicians promise to curb private education costs and strengthen public education in every election.

The conservative’s drivel about abolishment of standardized education and the progressive’s emphasis on consolidating public education are equally incompetent.

Let’s think about it. The reason for private education is to get relatively better grades than competing students in the race to the elite universities. Even if the quality of public education reaches the world’s best level, as long as the competition itself remains there, poorly performing students will still try to resort to private education to catch up.

Demand for private education → supply of better public education → demand for even better private education → supply of much much better public education… This routine is indefinitely repeated. In fact, with limited budgets and broadly controlled system, public education cannot be a good match for private education that is specialized in preparing individual students for writing exams in the first place.

A few years ago, in a by-election for the National Assembly members, Shim Sang-jeong from Ilsan pledged to introduce the Finnish education system in order to improve public education. However, even if you directly import Finnish schools, teachers and curricula to Korea, do you think the problem will be solved as long as the exam race still exists?

In the current exam race system for elite schools, it is completely misleading to advocate supply of public education that is better than private education from a market-centric approach.

What made matters worse is the doctrine of ‘open creativity-developing education’ as an antithesis to the memorization-heavy education. Ironically, this cause actively proposed by the progressive won some sympathy from the conservative because they promoted creativity education as the orientation of the 21st century’s education policy to secure ‘national competitiveness’ in the age of globalization. Autonomism, excellence [streaming] and creativity in education were suggested as the new direction. Since Kim Young-sam administration, the College Scholastic Ability Test replaced the achievement test and the Ministry of Education began approving textbooks written by private publishers. University admission criteria were also diversified.

However, exam race and open creativity education are the worst combination. Open education costs even more money. They implemented essay education to make up for memorization-oriented education. What was the result like? The intention was good but as long as the exam race is the underlying premise, such education further deepens the rich-get-richer and the poor-get-poorer of education.

There lies the ‘paradox of open education’. It was implemented for the progressive philosophy but that only made polarization of education worse. Western progressive education theorists also experienced this paradox.

All in all, the government has introduced various systems to reduce adverse effects of the exam race but it only got worse. As they try to change and diversify the university admission system, students become even more dependent on private education that excels at quickly adapting to new systems. Therefore, the burden of education expenses has only expanded and reached the current state.

Whether it is the government, the conservative or the progressive, their response to the education issue has been renowned for pathetic incompetence.

Why on earth is this happening? Every Korean citizen intuitively knows the answer. As long as the framework of ‘exam race for elite universities’ exists, no change in the entrance system can stop the overheated education craze in Korea.

Excluding that point, the argument between the conservative and progressive is just like a Gag Concert’s ‘2-Minute/Person Debate’ [a comedy skit]. Discussing how to change the education system, while leaving the social system based on educational background as it is now, is akin to brewing soup with urine and worrying about what spice to add.

Hence, the answer is very simple. Brew the soup with clean water instead of urine. We need to get rid of the chronic education cliques akin to India’s caste system. At the end of the day, the only solution is to standardize universities.

University standardization: the first step to end the zero-sum game for ‘classification’

If you bring up university standardization, some people think it is radical or even label it as communist. However, ironically, during the Cold War, communist countries did not have standardized universities. Moscow University and Kim Il Sung University were institutions for educating elite bureaucrats.

Standardized universities exist in most European countries. It wasn’t always like that. Continental European countries such as France and Germany implemented standardization mostly after the May 1968 protests.

Some people believe standardization will cause students to lose motivation to study and degrade their academic ability. This way of thinking stems from a brainwashed obsession with elitism and competition in Korean society. It can be likened to the situation where a person who grew up with Christianity thinks, without the religion, there will be no standard for ethics.

In any society, there are students who naturally develop interest in academic endeavors. Such students do not need a race to stimulate themselves. Rather, they can be absorbed into studying deeper with their internal motivation. If competition for the route of prestigious high school and university is too fierce, schools have to come up with a fair standard system that focuses on little details to differentiate similarly performing students. The students have to care too much about minor details. Instead of studying broad and deep, they learn how to write exams more effectively. This is indeed the invisible ‘degradation and waste of academic ability’.

Of course, not all students will be interested in studying if the university admission system is altered by standardization. Everyone being a good student is impossible and unnecessary. It’s just like we don’t hope students with no artistic or athletic ability will become excellent artists or athletes. The goal of high school should be to foster sensible citizens and studying at university should be considered only by the students who really has the academic aptitude. It is good even if only 20~30% of high school graduates enter university.

You may ask what I’m babbling about in this infinite competition and knowledge-based society. However, the correlation between economic development and education level is weaker than you may think. Listen to Prof. Jang Ha-joon’s explanation.

Let’s take a look at East Asian countries that are known for education which supposedly played an important role in their economic development. In 1960, Taiwan’s illiteracy rate was 46% which was twice as high as the Phillipines’ 28% but in 20 years, economic growth in these two countries turned out to be the opposite. Between 1980 and 2004, illiteracy rate in Africa dropped from 60% to 39% but their national income decreased by 0.3% every year.

Professor Lant Pritchett at Harvard University tried to examine whether education positively affects economic growth with data collected from tens of developed and developing countries between 1960 and 1987. He concluded there is no strong evidence that higher education level stimulates economic growth.

Koreans may naturally feel that if there are more educated people, the country becomes richer, from their own experience where the country was developed along with education fever. However, why is there no strong correlation between education and economic growth? It’s because education isn’t strongly related to improving productivity contrary to our belief.

From a purely economic point of view, humanity disciplines such as philosophy, music, literature, history, etc. hardly affect most workers’ productivity. It isn’t that much different for science. Physics and biology do not affect those workers in automotive assembly lines.

Of course, the amount of available knowledge is bigger than ever today. However, we can say what each worker should learn has rather decreased with improved productivity in manufacturing industries. In other words, with machinization and automation being commonplace, required skills and knowledge decrease.

Okay, it may be the case for common manual laborers. You may still think rich countries need more advanced workers. However, even in this knowledge-based age, the relation between higher education and economic prosperity isn’t simple. Take the example of Switzerland which is one of the most affluent and industrialized countries in the world.

Until 1996, the university-entering rate in Swiss was only 16% which was less than half of the average rate among the OECD cuntries. In 2007, it went up to 47% but it is still the lowest among the developed countries. Is this because the quality of higher education is too high in Swiss? We may not be able to say their education standard is tougher than the US with the university-entering rate of 82%. This ‘paradox of Swiss’ can be explained by the fact that education does not contribute much to increasing productivity.

Needless to say, there are professions that do require higher education. High-income professionals such as doctors, lawyers, educators and scientists belong to that category. The problem is that higher education is oversupplied in comparision to the demand from society. That is largely because of what you call ‘classification’ in economics.

“Loser, average and winner.”

In many jobs, what’s important is not specific knowledge that you can learn while working but those general qualities such as intelligence, will, organized thinking, etc. Many companies that recruit university graduates look for people with general abilities rather than specialized knowledge. Your educational background or diploma becomes an indicator for this ‘classification’. To get a good job, competition to get into that classification becomes fierce. As the ratio of university graduates keeps increasing past 50%, even those who have no interest in studying and acquiring knowledge enter university to avoid comparative disadvantage. The demand for universities increases along with the number of them.

As there are too many of them, these university graduates do not benefit from the ‘classification’ any more. Now they try to get a master’s degree or a Ph. D. to stand out, which results in the ‘inflation of education level.’

Although this is a general trend around the world, in Korea, educational background is much more emphasized for ‘classification’ and that is already determined while you are in your teenhood. Korea’s university entrance exam hell is caused by the nature of classification and zero-sum game. In addition, high tuitions rub salt in the wound.

In order to get one of the select few ‘good jobs’ by being in the ‘classification’, since little, Korean students endure hellish exam pressure consuming private education expenses. Then they spend expensive university tuitions and focus on building ‘specs’. Their early life passes by like that. In this zero-sum game, 80~90% of them are inevitably supposed to be losers. In this process, they internalize competition, hierarchy and winner-take-all worldview. They end up suffering a sense of failure for the rest of life instead of finding social solutions.

Belatedly, aknowledging this problem, the opposition party suggested several alteratives. One of them is the ‘blind interview’ system from candidate Moon Jae-in. It is a progress in that it’s an attempt to put a brake on the ‘classification’ process that induces fierce educational background competition. However, I doubt its effectiveness considering how practically numerous recruitments can be regulated while the universities are already rigidly ranked.

Same with the ‘demotion of Seoul National University (SNU) and integration of national public universities’ plan that was developed by DLP and accepted by the Democrats. They want to make all national universities includng SNU offer equal quality of education. This is one progressive step away from playing around with entrance exams in the past, but it still turns blind eye to companies’ old practice of ‘classification’ based on the applicants’ university names.

As long as the companies keep regarding the university names as proof of general ability for the ‘classification’, it is nothing but doing good for the elite private universities shadowed by SNU. Therefore, if they can’t standardize the entire universities and control the excessive demand for higher education, such ‘reform’ will only lead to controversies with no effectiveness and end up causing cynicism against reforms. If you have cancer, you have to cut it out. Will you just get a massage because the surgery is hard and risky?

The reason why most Korean parents struggle to give private lessons to their children is not because they want to raise them as extraordinary individuals. They simply want their children to get a job that doesn’t make them worry about making ends meet, buy a house and get married. It is just that it has become hard to realize such humble hope unless they get a highly-paid specialized profession, a big corporate job or a public official position.

Ultimately, the problem is that there are insufficient ‘decent workplaces’ that can let you live a normal life raising kids. Therefore, the current crippled education in Korea is directly related to the crippled labor market and at the core of it is the income disparity.

The source of all evils: income gap and lack of job security

In Korea, income disparity is too severe, depending on the company, type of work and whether it is a permanent or temporary position. Ironically, this income gap began widening since the beginning of the democratic government. If big companies paid you 100, SMEs paid you 63 in 2010. If high school graduates get 100, university graduates get 150. If you consider the university name value as a variable, the gap must be even wider but there is no official data for that. The wage gap between temporary and permanent jobs is even more dramatic. In 2010, temporary workers only received 46.8% of regular workers’ wage.

Even if you follow the golden route to a regular corporate job, 사오정 [get laid off at 45] is an ancient meme and it’s been a while since 삼팔선 [hit the limit at 38] was coined. In Korea’s highest revenue-yielding company Samsung Electronics, the average number of successive years of employement is less than 8 years. Korean workers’ number of successive work years is even shorter than that in the American labor market which is considered to be the most flexible.

Due to this reality, self-employers flourish. 57% of the small business owners make less than a million won per month on average and 80% of them work longer than 10 hours everyday including weekends. Half of them go out of business within 2 years. The social safety net only helps them not starve to death.

Korean economy once had a very thick layer of middle class. I explained in the last article about how Korean economy has been following the path of Latin American economy, opening the Hell Gate of top suicide rate, bottom birth rate and low happiness.

Do we really want to pass down this state of Korea to our children? Can we neglect the reality where you have to push your children to study to death if they don’t want to fall into the pit and students make an exodus for education if their goose parents can afford it? How can you be insensitive to the current situation where even teenagers have the highest suicide rate in the world?

4. Welfare state – will the dreams ★ come true?

Scandinavian national flags share a common trait.

Since around the last congressional election, economic democratization and welfare have become hot issues and there is a growing interest in Northen European countries that seemed irrelevant even only a few years ago. However, many people are skeptical about establishing a similar welfare system that looks unrealistic in Korea.

Nevertheless, without a doubt, I think that is basically where we have to head to. 20 years ago, right before the collapse of Soviet, it was Sweden that chairman Gorbachov called the best among the social systems humanity has ever created.

Some say they cannot be our model because Scandianvian countries like Sweden are small countries with less than 10 million population. This doesn’t make sense if you recall that Korea has considered the US as the ‘global standard’ and followed their way for 20 years. The US has 6 times more population and several tens times bigger territory than Korea. They are a political and military superpower that has abundance of natural resources and they issue dollars as the global currency.

What is the result of aiming to become a ‘little America’ just like Joseon dreamed of being a ‘little China’? Before judging whether the American social system is right or wrong, who has a more similar socio-political environment between the US and Sweden? We should dream of becoming a ‘big Sweden’ instead of a ‘little America’.

First of all, if you do the same work, you get the same pay in Sweden. That is the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’. Therefore, a lathe worker at Volvo should be paid the same wage as a lathe worker at a small factory. This is the famous Saltsjöbaden Agreement in 1938. At that time, labor unions refrained from going on strikes and owners promised to reduce the wage disparity for low-income workers. The government agreed to offer nearly free health care and education. Due to this social agreement, the companies that couldn’t afford increased wages went bankrupt. On the other hand, because of the controlled wages, sturdy companies became more competitive against similar industries in other countries. In this process, their industry naturally transformed into a higher value-added one.

30~40 years later, such wage policy began causing workers at higher profit companies to complain about their inflexible income. After debates about the wage-earner funds, the wage policy has deviated from the original form but the basic principle has been maintained.

Neighboring Scandiavian countries also have similar wage systems. Let’s listen to Ms. Kim Young-hee who has lived in Denmark.

I often asked Danish people around me whether there are so-called good and undesirable jobs in Denmark. They always gave me ‘textbook’ answers. They said they respect skilled bricklayers as much as highly educated doctors. Their net income gap isn’t big because of the progressive taxation. Bricklayers and doctors have a similar standard of living. Painters and lawyers don’t have a significant income disparity. Vocational school graduates receive lower wages than university graduates but since they begin working earlier, their cumulative income is similar. Highly-paid skilled workers can enjoy a more stable life.

The society where elite schools, better jobs, better pays and a comfortable life are not equated. The relatively equal society where there is no hierachy between people and your job doesn’t determine your standard of living and social status. In such society, people don’t desperately want to go to university.

“Bricklayer: If it weren’t for people like me, you wouldn’t be able to live in a house with roof or walls. Would anybody want that? My job is as imporant as a president of a bank.”
“Interviewer: What is your monthly wage?”
“Bricklayer: 30,000 krona (about 6 million won). I pay a lot of taxes but I think I get back more than I paid. I don’t mean money isn’t important. Everyone wants to make much money. However, it is more important to spend time with my wife and children than to just earn money.”

Through personal travel, internet or media, we have been flooded with information about Northern European welfare states for a while. Many figures such as politicians, public officials, labor union executives and civil activitsts have visited Scandinavian countries to learn their social systems. It is not that we don’t try to apply those systems because we are not aware of them. We just don’t know where to begin.

Progressives express skepticism pointing at low participation in labor unions and strong previleged groups. Conservatives are dismissive while bringing up the current economic and financial state. There are also assholes who even threaten that welfare will perish the country.

Blaming the ‘practicality’, they end up adopting just a few convenient fragments of the system. However, a nation’s social system gains organic functionality from the overall structure and historical context. You can’t just adopt a few policies as if you are shopping and expect to acquire the same effect as in the country of origin. If we just take the curricula of vocational schools in Denmark directly into Korea, will it work smoothly? Danish vocational schools can work successfully because their graduates’ labor is valued properly in the society and there is relatively less excessive demand for higher education.

“Red rose: the symbol of social democracy”

What we truly need to learn and adopt is not just fragmented systems and policies here and there, but the operational principle and philosophy that runs through the entire society. As Hong Ki-bin put it, it should be a consistent socio-economic model that can complement various policies and systems. I would call it ‘social democracy’.

Some may recall the image of old frail Europe and label it as an outdated theory. They imagine as if there is some national rejection to it due to the state of divided Korea. However, as will be discussed in the next article, politics researcher Sheri Berman proved the true winner of the 20th century was not liberalism but social democracy.

According to a survery in 2010, 67% of Korean citizens favored Northern European style welfare. As long as such welfare system can be put in place, they are willing to pay higher taxes. It is the politicians, not the citizens, who aren’t ready yet.

Comments from Ddanzi Ilbo:

Dead on. I’m from the 486 generation and I just made an account to leave a comment. I was skeptical of blindly supporting the opposition party. I changed my view after reading your columns. However, realistically, it will be hard for both Saenuri and Democratic parties to come out of factionism and hate politics. My wife and I can’t even think of having a second kid…but I believe in our people’s power. There are people who write articles like this and read them so at some point, we will be able to change the scene. Once again, let’s believe in people’s greatness.


You got absorbed into the topic too much that you oversimplified the reality and sounded extreme. For example, why would you say the arguments between the conservative and the opposition party have only been an exhaustive frame war that has nothing to do with people’s life? That’s not the case. History always progresses and moves forward little by little. It was certainly a historical progress when Kim Dae-jung implemented local self-governance to weaken the central government’s influence and achieved the regime change. According to your logic, you may say it’s not very different either way, but the fact that the regime can change alone made leaders at least concious of the people and act like servants to the degree that we began to use the word ‘populism’.

In essence, your article prattles that both political parties are the same in the end and people’s life hasn’t improved but there are improvements even by little. What about Kim Dae-jung administration’s investment in IT infrastructure that resulted in today’s active internet culture? The passion for democratization from the regime change made it possible for the online intellect to see through politicians’ bullshit and for your Ddanzi Ilbo to catch false reports of the conservative media. I agree with this recent remark from Ahn Cheol-soo that the reality never fundamentally changes in one step. It only progresses gradually. Your article is burning with passion that says “I know the ideal goal and in order to achieve that, we need to turn over the current situation!” It’s not that Roh Moo-hyun or Yoo Shi-min failed because they didn’t know what you know. We can only try to make changes one by one and step forward even if it’s through petty frame wars and election engineering.


Let’s stop being cynical. In my opinion, it makes things worse when you look at sociopolitical issues from an economic angle. Recently on radio (I live in the US), one politics researcher said voters generally vote for the candidates who go against their economic interest. Maybe it’s not a new fact. Poor states vote for the Republicans and rich states vote for the Democrats. It’s probably the same in Korea. It’s not because they are ignorant and unenlightened. Politics is a matter of ideology. Elected political leaders become symbolic beings. I guess our collective act of electing such president [Lee Myung-bak] in 2007 was a declaration of “we just want to make lots of money” and that became the ideology of Korean society. Economy was given the highest value and everything was gauged by money. This article is also trying to approach the issue from an economic viewpoint. (If you admit that Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun were in fact rightist, it is clear that the new political entity mentioned in this article is the real leftist.) The leftist policy suggested by this article is possible only when the entire society prefers philosophical values such as equality and justice over economic values like welfare and growth. If you only talk about the economic aspect, there is no answer because our greed is endless. Anyway, the national head is a symbolic figure and we have a chance to fix the error we made in 2007. That’s why this presidential election is important before considering how much Korean society will improve. That’s why… Dear Inje, fighting. (I wanted to say this…^^)


The source of all evils or the biggest reason why we can’t make a proper welfare state is because of the value system that is like a broken scale that equally weighs a private room salon scandal and an incident where 6 people were victimized by the authority…


Your article is always lacking. Questioning is good. Okay, let’s say the ruling and opposition parties haven’t been better than the other. Okay, there have been too many quarrels blindly advocating their camps. Now show me the 3rd political party that can realize the walfare system in real life. There are only two months left until the election but you expect the 3rd political party to emerge? What is this? Isn’t politics the reality after all? Don’t you have to build it up one by one in real life? Then what’s the point if you laugh at the arguing camps on your high horse and say they are all the same? In your multiple choice question, you only have 1, 2 and 3. Isn’t it a bad joke if you pick 4? I agree with your overall point but (1) it is something you might say in lecture rooms, not in real politics. (2) While you criticize the factionists, you lump issues of different weights together, which reveals your ‘reverse-bias’.

To make it clear, I share and support your questions and thesis suggested in a series of columns. You said the right things. (1) We should look at the individual results of their policies, not their parties. (2) At the root of the current problems including education in Korean society are the inconsistent reforms based on liberalism. Now we should consider ‘welfare’ as the reformist keyword. They are all right. However, the problem is this.

(1) It is certainly wrong to judge the ‘current’ situation based on the ‘old’ factionism. But you go beyond the stage of objectively reflecting and even seem to think our current political actions can be judged from the 3rd party postion out of nowhere. Such ideas would come from the academics or the conclusion part of a thesis. After reflection, we still have to take the multiple choice question in reality and make a choice, don’t we?

(2) The comprehensive answer for the problems is ‘welfare’. You should’ve emphasized on this. The choice is up to the people. Who will return the ‘state’ on top of the empty civil society destructed by the ‘paradox of liberalism’? Who will demand welfare as a civil right in real politics, fight for it and make it happen? However, what you are saying is that they are all the same due to their past wrongdoings and untrustworthy. You downplay the most realistically progressive compromise. In front of the soliders waiting on an order to charge against overwhelming enemies, you are preaching the ‘futility of life’. In other words, it’s fucking hopeless.


What you consider important is obviously necessary and important but what you consider unimportant is very important, too, to be just pushed aside. For someone who remembers the democracy Pres. Roh Moo-hyun let us taste, the current state of Korea shaped by Lee Myung-bak and his henchmen is, how should I put it, fucking sickening. It unbearably fucking sucks. It is so obvious what future is awaiting if Park Geun-hye wins the election and the Hannara Party returns to power in this situation.

There are people who think Lee Myung-bak did a warm-up for Korean-style democracy and Park Geun-hye’s win will be Park Chung-hee, the king’s return. What would they do in this country? I don’t think I’m being delusional at all. Isn’t this important? I think it is. Lee Myung-bak made our democracy regress by 10 or 15 years to keep the ‘lost 10 years’ pledge. Then Park Geun-hye will void numerous people’s blood and sweat for democracy. /spit


I like your article and I agree with your question but I want to refute a few secondary points.

1. You picked France as a good example of university standardization but France is far from it. There are select few elite universities, some decent ones, and a bunch of third-rate ones in France. Most important social positions are taken by the elite school graduates. You wouldn’t want that…

2. Even if Korea achieves complete standardization of universities, I don’t think that will alleviate the current murderous exam competition. Something else will replace the standard for ‘classification’ that is strongly required by Korean society. It could be English skills or master’s degrees or Ph. D. What’s worse is that rich people can be educated in foreign universities and stand out above all the graduates who studied in standardized Korean universities. That can even prevent poor people from being successful. If we can’t remove the factors causing excessive competiton at the fundemental level, any prescription will breed side effects. FYI, I live in Sweden. I look forward to your next article. However, do not commit the error of focusing only on Sweden’s strength like usual TV shows and expanding your arguments from there.


Thanks for the good article again. I always look forward to your articles. I am conservative but I agree with reforms based on social democracy as long as they stand firmly on national security. I don’t want to pass down the current state of Korea to my children. Education reform may be the no. 1 important thing. I am reminded of the book “Demand” that stressed the importance of background stories. The world doesn’t change with one thing. If we see far and reform in the long run, I believe changes will synergize and create a good country. Be generous to the usual ignorant netizens who are jealous or lack reading comprehension. When I see those who cannot see the big picture but get all nitpicky on peripheral points here and there, I once again realize how our education is flawed. I will look forward to your last article in the series. People like you should be abound in the politics. I’m concerned.


Education hell in Korea will never disappear unless our tendency to look down on people with lesser education background is gone. Korea actually has a caste system like India. It is a society where you are judged by things like your education, income and job. To talk about my personal anecdote, when I was doing an intership at GE in the US 20 years ago, factory workers and engineers definitely did different work and got paid differently. However, what I saw in a company golf tournament on a Saturday was surprising. They mingled and had fun together all day making teams based on their golf skills. What about in Korea? One of my friends in the US was satisfied with being a technician after graduating from college. He found it comfortable to work that much and take responsibility that much. He wasn’t looked down on but in Korea? Of course, things change in the US, too, but still they don’t blatantly look down on people as much.


After reading just one paragraph, I was convinced this article is a load of bullocks. To enable welfare, you have to resolve political problems. The real problem is that political arguments are just presented as an exhaustive frame war. Negatives and personal attacks are a natural part of politics. Politics without emotions is abnormal. The moral high ground is what they use to masturbate. You have to react to negatives either aggressively or passively to uphold a cause and poltics gradually progresses in the process. How many countries have that purely value-oriented politics you guys talk about? Moreoever, when you talk about welfare, you should make the receivers of welfare, who are fallen middle class and low-income people, fucking understand what on earth you guys are talking about. You guys are hopeless.

Also, it is absolutely useless to chatter about Northern European or French style welfare without considering the specific Korean situation. You have to deal with welfare and unification issues together in Korea. Kim Dae-jung you guys bitch about so much advocated the Sunshine policy because he realized that the North Korea problem was an obstacle to not only peace but also our political advancement. If you analyze our economic structure and get cynical about our politics, does welfare just happen? Sometimes, ignorant guys base their sense of superiority on their indifference to politics. I knew where your article was heading to as soon as you used the economic angle. After writing an article like this, can you swallow your Samgyeopsal pieces peacefully? Those who praise an article of this poor level should wake up. This is not Northern Europe but Northeast Asia where the G2 superpowers are doing crazy shit, bitches.

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