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The Korean disease

May 26,2018
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Candidates register to run in the June 13 local elections on Thursday. [YONHAP]
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Choi Sang-yeon
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

I once had a road trip in Italy, and I was shocked by the rough style of Italian drivers. I was frequently scared to face a car running toward me at full speed on a narrow, unpaved one-lane road. The practice must have gone on for centuries, as I remembered a British author, recounting a journey in Italy in medieval times, saying he was shocked by a carriage dangerously running on the road without caring about passers-by.

When I told the Italian people that I was surprised by the traffic culture, they didn’t seem to care. Some even said a car accident in Italy is often a minor scratch, but a car accident in Germany is often fatal. They said all drivers are defensive on the road, because they worry about other people’s lack of respect for traffic regulations, but in Germany, drivers seldom pay attention to other cars because they think other drivers will obey the regulations.

It must have been a joke, but it made sense, particularly in politics. In Italy, politicians often offer sugarcoated words. They also blame others, and the public pays attention to politicians who powerfully attack the political establishment. The latest general election was an example. Political parties that promoted populism won overwhelming victories. The center-right and center-left parties all suffered losses.

The Five Star Movement, a populist political party, pledged a basic income of 780 euros ($913) per month to all people. The Forza Italia, the right-wing party led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is not very different. It promised to scrap the inheritance tax to pander to the rich while promising to cut all taxes for the poor. It pledged to shelve road tax, car tax and housing tax. With the agreement of the two parties, the first ever populist administration in western Europe is about to launch.

Korean politics is following Italian politics. The competition of the welfare pledges in an election has evolved to a new level. Only four years ago, the conservatives and the liberals had different views on free lunches at elementary and middle schools. But now, there is no difference among politicians. All candidates are vowing to offer free lunch at high schools. The pledge requires 4 trillion won ($3.7 billion), but no candidate is concerned about how to come up with the money. Some even promised free school uniforms, free textbooks and support for commuting expenses.

The problem is more serious than treating populism as a disease that gets worse only when an election takes place. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who visited Korea recently, said a political leader must make a hard decision for the country’s interest, even if it will cost one’s title. Although he is a leftist politician who headed the Social Democratic Party, he cured the notorious “German disease” crippling the economy with right-wing reform policies. After what he had accomplished, he lost an election and stepped down.

Italy, led by Berlusconi around the same time, went in the opposite direction. With an empty promise that the people can live prosperous lives without working hard, Berlusconi won re-elections to become the first prime minister of Italy to serve three terms. He was also the only prime minister who completed his term. But his leadership was tainted by double standards and corruption. Lawmakers blamed each other for contentious bills. It became the worst legislature in the world.

The National Assembly of Korea is not much different. Most of all, Korean lawmakers are very similar to Italian politicians when it comes to protecting their own privileges. The National Assembly recently voted down arrest motions for two lawmakers — Reps. Hong Moon-jong and Yeom Dong-yeol.
The government is spending money without any caution, while candidates are all making populist pledges. Where can we find our Schröder to end the “Korean disease”?

JoongAng Ilbo, May 25, Page 30