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Upcoming Presidential Election: Learning from failed Presidents
By Yoon Yeo-joon, Chairman of the Korea Local Development Institute
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Recently the media has raved about how Korea entered the “20-50 Club.” Korea is the seventh country to have reached per capita income of US$20,000 and a population surpassing 50 million. It’s as if our country is now the seventh wealthiest country in the world. But is it really?

No. Just take a look at some quantitative measures. Korea’s GDP per capita does not rank within the top 30, and the population of Korea is only the 25th largest in the world -- prospects show that in a few years Korea will have a hard time securing even this position.

Yet if you establish a factitious category where these two indicators meet, we become the seventh in the world. What’s more, this “20-50 Club” has no physical entity or gathering such as the G20 or G8. So it’s only an illusion that people forced into existence.
It may temporarily make the people feel proud, but it poses the risk of displaying a false landscape of the country’s reality.

The reality Korea faces today is far from the image of progress that the “20-50 Club” hints at. Internationally, the economic crisis is heading our way like a tsunami from Europe and the U.S., the center of the world economy. Domestically, we are challenged with slow growth and high levels of unemployment, rapid increase in national and consumer debt, extreme polarization of wealth, steep decrease in birth rate and a fast aging society, entry into a multi-cultural society, powerful demand for economic democratization, etc.

Amidst this pressing situation, internally and externally, do we have the capability to keep the growth engine burning and overcome this crisis? Simply put, the reality we face is not one of progress, but rather one of decline.

In the past, when Korea was under the rule of an authoritarian government, we experienced a powerful government. Back then, the state controlled all of society, and the system vertically mobilized the people, so the country was fairly efficient. However, during the four-and-a-half centuries after democratization, the successive leadership of the country did not establish new governing principles befitting a new era, thus failing to integrate the people and build state capacity. Presidents have failed.

The political sector, which should have managed, mediated and settled economic and social conflicts, clung to the interests of their particular factions, and fell to become one of the parties caught in these extreme conflicts and confrontations, eventually losing the trust of the people. The National Assembly became a boxing ring full of all kinds of violence, instead of serving as the floor for the consensus of sacred public opinion. Political parties tried to avoid the people’s judgment by opening their business under a new party name and symbol before the elections. We are witnessing illegal activities even in the nomination of party candidates for public office. Politics has failed.

How is the situation in the executive branch? The bureaucracy has long been overwhelmed by the private sector in terms of capacity and expertise, and with the rising influence of the political circle and interest groups, the heart of public office, autonomy -- in other words impartiality -- has weakened rapidly. People in public office are no longer aware of their role as a public figure, and the bureaucracy, which should be promoting public interest, is barely distinguishable from any other interest group. In particular, the deterioration and politicization of judicial organizations such as the prosecution, the police, and the military has deeply weakened law and order and security -- the very foundations of a nation -- raising concerns of a national break down. Bureaucracy has failed.

Neglect on the part of the President, politics, and bureaucracy has led to the steep decline in the country’s capacity, seriously weakening the state. Would it be too pessimistic to say that this is the true self-portrait hanging before us today?

It is now time for us to focus all our efforts on building the nation’s capacity to effectively overcome the challenges before us rather than seek temporary refuge in illusions like the “20-50 Club.” We need to question and demand answers from each and every lawmaker -- not to mention the political parties that won seats in the 19th National Assembly -- to see if they are aware of the reality we face and if they are prepared with a solution and an action plan.

First, we will have to ask the candidates who plan to run in the December presidential elections what thoughts they have about the various challenges before us, and thoroughly check to see if they have the capacity and measures to solve these problems.

But most of all, we must see if they can present a vision that can kindle a fire in the hearts of the people. We must prevent any adversity by making sure we do not put the future of our country in the hands of a candidate, who lacks knowledge on the realities challenging us, whose plan to realize his/her vision falls short, and whose capacity is lacking.

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