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Change requires courage

May 10, 2017

South Korea's new President Moon Jae-in will look to fundamentally alter the country's policy toward North Korea and the US. On the domestic front, too, he has to initiate reforms, says DW's Alexander Freund.

Südkorea Präsidentschaftswahlen Moon Jae-in
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Everything has to become better but nothing has to change - this is the fundamental dilemma confronting South Korean society for decades.

Economically, the entire nation's prosperity still crucially depends on the large business conglomerates that have once transformed South Korea into an export powerhouse. Their power can be seen in the fact that if one of the so-called Chaebols, like Samsung, faces problems, then it troubles not just the company, but the entire national economy.

The problem is compounded by corrupt links between the political and business classes. The graft scandal surrounding the ousted President Park Geun-hye is a case in point.

The arrangements put in place during the economic boom years no longer seem to work. The family-run conglomerates have long ceased to generate work and prosperity for the masses. Instead, the younger generations suffer from unemployment and job insecurity. Facing these conditions is particularly hard in South Korea, a country where work largely determines a person's social status.

Freund Alexander Kommentarbild App
DW's Alexander Freund

A generational gap

Moon Jae In, the left-leaning new leader, has said he wants to tackle these issues and eradicate the corrupt ties between politics and business. But it's easily said than done as he is likely to encounter stiff resistance, particularly from the older generations, to any proposal that aims to radically alter the status quo. That's because the problems in South Korea primarily represent a generational divide, resulting from the failure of the older generations to adhere to the promises they have made to their younger compatriots.

It has led to many young, educated and highly-skilled people languishing without any hope for a better future: no secure jobs, no own housing, no prospects of marriage and children, among other things.

The problems arose not because the elderly are ignorant. It's after all they who worked hard to make sure that their children received optimal education and had a better future. But although the younger generation received good education, over three million graduates among them are currently struggling with badly paid mini-jobs. This has resulted not due to the ignorance of the elderly, but rather due to the lack of courage on their part to confront difficult problems.

South Korean President Moon sworn into office

When faced with a crisis - which have been several in the past - there has been a lack of courage to initiate wide-ranging reforms and dismantle entrenched vested interests.

Even in the wake of the Asian financial crisis that shook South Korea in the late 1990s, the country failed to make any substantial reforms and instead clung on fearfully to its once successful economic model.

The sharp wedge between the young and the old is also evident on the question of the South's relationship with its isolated, bellicose northern neighbor, North Korea.

While the old, post-World War II generation wants to continue a hard course vis-à-vis Pyongyang, many in the younger age groups want to soften the stance and are more inclined to engage in dialogue with the North's reclusive regime.

Altering the status quo

Moon has also appeared to be in favor of holding talks with the Kim Jong Un regime. His position is influenced by the realization that the currently enforced hard-line policy involving ever-tighter sanctions hasn't achieved the desired objective of taming the North's aggressive posture and curbing its nuclear and missile development activity.

The gestures coming from US President Donald Trump's administration in Washington haven't helped the situation on the Korean Peninsula either.

Despite US security guarantees and missile defense systems, an outbreak of conflict on the peninsula would devastate South Korea as well as impose pain and misery on its people and future generations.

Moon's readiness for dialogue and pursuit of a more independent approach to the North Korean issue will certainly be welcomed in Pyongyang and Beijing, but they will elicit skepticism and concern in Washington and Tokyo.

In difficult times, the relatively young South Korean democracy has been able to defend itself impressively. 30 years ago, mass protests managed to oust a 30-year dictatorship, bringing to life a new democracy.

The recent mass demonstrations brought the curtain down on the tenure of conservative president Park. And a majority of South Koreans have now elected as president a person who was born to refugees from North Korea. Moon also once spent time in prison for protesting against the dictatorship of his predecessor's father, Park Chung-hee.

Moon wants to adopt new policies and take the fight to entrenched interests. It will be evident in the coming years whether or not South Koreans are willing to accept the changes he is proposing. South Korea's potential remains huge, but it takes courage to change and reform.

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