Published : 2013-02-24 19:50
Updated : 2013-02-24 19:50
Upon being sworn in as the 18th president of the Republic of Korea this morning, Park Geun-hye will embark on the pursuit of happiness for the Korean people. She plans to enhance their happiness by spending more on welfare. She believes it is worthwhile to pursue happiness for the Korean people as a whole as elusive and costly as the goal may be.
Few would dispute the pursuit of happiness is a misplaced objective for Park’s five-year presidency. Korea has been surging forward for economic advancement since her late father, President Park Chung-hee, launched his first five-year economic development plan in the early 1960s.
Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world when her father, an Army general, took power in a military coup in 1961. His immediate task was to feed the starving people. As Korea has now become the 15th largest economy in the world, it can definitely afford to spend more on welfare, if not as much as the new president intends.
Happiness does not go hand in hand with national wealth, as indicated by Gallup’s recent survey of people in 148 countries in the world. The survey ranked Korea, a country with per capita income surpassing the $20,000 level, surprisingly low ― 97th, together with Greece, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic.
True, measuring the level of happiness a country’s people feel is an elusive task. Questions may be raised about the validity of the survey, which asked 1,000 people in each country if they were well-rested, had been treated with respect, smiled or laughed a lot, learned or did something interesting and had feelings of enjoyment the previous day.
Still, it can be surmised, based on the survey, that Korean people feel less happy than the average person in the world, though they belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based club of well-to-do nations. This undoubtedly speaks volumes about what the nation needs to do for its people.
Against this backdrop, Park has committed herself to shifting the “paradigm of administering state affairs” and placing the happiness of the people on top of her political agenda items since she was selected as the presidential nominee of the ruling Saenuri Party last year. The key to her project is 135 trillion won in additional spending on welfare over the next five years.
Now the question is how to finance the welfare plan. She says a substantial amount of money will come from additional revenue that will be raised when her administration reduces the nation’s gray economy, plugs tax loopholes and retires many of the tax credits and other tax favors. But the amount would be woefully small. Among the alternatives will be to collect more taxes and delay her election promises that are not deemed urgent.
Another obstacle is slowing growth, which will cut back on tax revenues. Moody’s Investors Service has recently lowered Korea’s 2013 growth outlook to 3 percent, which would mean a 2 trillion won shortfall in tax revenues.
Spending more on welfare, however, will not guarantee greater happiness for Korean households, whose debt the Bank of Korea says is approaching the 1,000 trillion won level. Who would laugh a lot, do something interesting and have feelings of enjoyment when they are under the threat of being forced out of their homes because they cannot make good on their mortgage payments? The astronomical amount of household debt is a ticking time bomb for the nation.
In addition to speeding up economic recovery and defusing the time bomb, her administration will also have to breathe new life into the moribund property market and create jobs for young people in particular.
Another diversion from the pursuit of happiness is the precarious security to which South Korea is exposed, as North Korea is pushing ahead with a plan to arm itself with nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Park, who wanted to build peace by launching what she called the “Korean Peninsula process” of trust building, will now have to determine how she will respond to the increasing security threats from the North.
Given the worsening economic conditions and the security threat from the North Korean communists, odds are stacked against Park’s pursuit of happiness for the South Korean people. Still, she could gain insight from her father, who, against all odds, pulled the nation out of extreme poverty and helped turn it into a global industrial powerhouse.