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AsiaGlobal Voices

Trending Opinions From Across the Region

AsiaGlobal Voices is a curated feed of summaries of opinion articles, columns and editorials published in local languages in media from across Asia.

The publication of AsiaGlobal Voices summaries does not indicate any endorsement by the Asia Global Institute or AsiaGlobal Online of the opinions expressed in them.
Who is Winning the Park Chung-hee vs Kim Il-sung Battle?
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Who is Winning the Park Chung-hee vs Kim Il-sung Battle?

Lee Dae-hyun, editor, in Maeil News (January 23, 2021)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: Shin So-young)

Who is Winning the Park Chung-hee vs Kim Il-sung Battle?

The two people who have had the most influence on the Korean Peninsula in the last century are arguably Park Chung-hee of the South and Kim Il-sung of the North. The two never met but had significant influence in the trajectory of the two countries.

In many ways, Park laid the ground for the South’s miraculous economic growth with his five-year economic plan, the Saemaul Undong (New Community Movement), and the export-driven growth policy. His priorities allowed the South to overtake the North in the economic development race: the South’s GDP per capita increased twentyfold from US$82 in 1961 to US$1,640 dollars in 1979. During the same period, the North’s increased from US$195 dollars to US$1,114.

Today’s numbers serve as even starker evidence of Kim’s utter defeat in the competition with Park. According to the latest statistics, the South’s GDP is estimated to be 54 times the North’s, its GDP per capita 27 times, and the total trade volume 322 times. Life expectancy of North Koreans is 66.7 for men and 73.5 for women, while in the South it is 80 for men and 85.9 for women.

Despite these numbers, the reality is less clear about who the true winner might be. The South continues to tolerate the North’s unacceptable insults and nuclear threats. Whereas the North is currently ruled by Kim’s grandson, the South is being governed by those who would much prefer to erase the memory of Park from history. There is no guarantee as to how the North-South battle will play out in the future. Now, from their respective places in the afterlife, perhaps it is Kim who is triumphant and Park who is the frustrated one. 


Understanding the Low Birth Rate
Monday, February 1, 2021
Understanding the Low Birth Rate

Kim Se-jeong, counsel at SSW Pragmatic Solutions, in JoongAng Sunday (January 9, 2021)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: Hippopx)

Understanding the Low Birth Rate

This is the first year since the start of the national registration system that the death rate has exceeded that of births. The birth rate in Korea for the past two years has been 0.9, lowest among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations. It is clear that Korean women do not want, or are unable, to have children and society must try to understand the cause of the problem to solve it.

In a Korean society, there is incredible pressure to stick to “normal” family structures, consisting of a formal union between a man and woman. Every other form of family such as single parenthood, divorced or informal cohabitation is deemed inappropriate and subject to prejudice. Imagine a person seeking employment having to make known to a prospective employer that he/she is not married but has a child. The immense pressure and opprobrium would discourage child-rearing despite the nation’s desperate need for more children.

Even in “normal” families with children, child-rearing is no easy task and is especially cumbersome in a society built on competition and conformity. According to the ministry of Health and Welfare, there were over 40,000 reported cases of child abuse and 42 related child deaths in 2019 alone. Korean society obviously not only needs more children but also a better system to take care of existing children and their parents.

Considering all this, it is outrageous to find “advice” on the Seoul Center for Pregnancy website for pregnant women to be considerate of their husbands’ lack of cooking skills when the mothers go to hospital and to brace themselves for losing weight after giving birth. It really is no surprise that Korean women are not having babies.


The Shameless Governing Class Sows Division for Political Gain
Wednesday, January 20, 2021
The Shameless Governing Class Sows Division for Political Gain

Yang Sung-hee, editor at JoongAng Ilbo Plus, in JoongAng Sunday (December 26, 2020)

The Shameless Governing Class Sows Division for Political Gain

Perhaps history is but a repetition of people in hardship scapegoating each other. This psychology may help explain why conspiracy theories flourish at the turn of every crisis and disaster. In the US alone, there is a wide variety of allegations ranging from Bill Gates purposely spreading the coronavirus so that he can profit from vaccines to microchips secretly being implanted in serum. Despite the craziness, a whopping 30 percent of Americans believe in such stories. This may be just about humans trying to survive an unreasonable crisis.  

Be that as it may, for ordinary citizens, the responsibility to ensure a cohesive functioning society falls on the people of governing class and the media. In a crisis, they have a duty to calm the general population’s uneasiness and fears and work together to bring back reason and a sense of normalcy. 

On the streets these days, however, it has become all too easy to overhear outrageous conspiracy theories centered on politicians and probably spread by politicians to serve their ambitions. People talk and believe that Covid-19 has been purposely left to spread so that the long-awaited timing of the vaccines will coincide with a by-election. Others believe that social-distancing measures will be tightened only after the president’s artist son finishes his exhibition. 

More outrageous than these theories is the shamelessness of the governing class in using division and scapegoating for political gain. The media exaggerate unfounded theories to gain traffic. The political class uses the crisis to defame others and score political points. These are all sad examples of how our system is failing miserably. The thriving coronavirus politics is more tiring than the pandemic.


Landlords Too May Be Hurting
Monday, January 18, 2021
Landlords Too May Be Hurting

Yang Jong-gon, journalist, in Seoul Economic Daily (December 15, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: Jens-Olaf Walter)

Landlords Too May Be Hurting

The “benevolent landlord campaign” was started to encourage rich landlords to play their part in the pandemic by reducing or eliminating rent payment. Although the idea was conceived by the government to promote voluntary goodwill, it was not difficult to imagine how this could further divide people by pointing the finger at a group of “greedy” people. 

The truth is not all landlords are fabulously wealthy. In fact, there are many who funded their properties with loans, and given the ongoing recession and closures, it is not difficult to imagine their own financial strain. Closures of businesses lead to financial losses for property owners. Covid-19 does not discriminate. Everyone bleeds, whether they own or rent. 

To add fuel to the voluntary campaign, the non-abiding landlords may now face the risk of becoming outright criminals as the authorities are proposing to force a halving or even an elimination of rent payments altogether. If the goal is to help those in need, one might ask why not also help the landlords in distress. To ensure fairness, at the very least, they must also be offered an extended timeline for loan and interest payments. 

Favoring tenants’ concerns over those of landlords may be popular, but what is popular may not be fair. Before playing favorites among its constituents, the government must remember the risk of further dividing the public in this time when more mutual support and social cohesion are desperately needed.


The Imperfect Vaccine Solution
Friday, December 11, 2020
The Imperfect Vaccine Solution

Hong Gi-bin, political economist, in Kyunghyang Shinmun (December 5, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: Cheong Wa Dae, The Republic of Korea)

The Imperfect Vaccine Solution

The year 2020 will be remembered first for the pandemic and second for the widespread distrust and dissatisfaction with governments. The virus has been powerful at physical destruction but also at shattering social unity and paralyzing the global economy. In less than a year since the Covid-19 outbreak, so-called developed countries have broken down on so many levels, and too many lives have been lost in the process. 

The UK government has approved a vaccine for distribution to British citizens. Other developed countries will be approving and releasing other versions. But none of the current vaccines have fully completed comprehensive tests on possible side effects, and while some argue that this was necessary to speed up the rollouts, this course of action is no different than that of heavily criticized Russia and China that already started using their own versions of imperfect vaccines on their population. 

Understandably, pharmaceutical companies are requesting a blanket exemption from liability for any potential side effects from widespread vaccination. The rush, the irresponsibility of governments and manufacturers, and the potential disastrous side effects have increased the possibility that many will refuse to be inoculated with any vaccine. South Korea has already seen a rise in vaccine resistance following the unexpectedly high death toll from seasonal flu shots. According to a Pew Research Center poll in September, 51 percent of Americans would refuse vaccination. 

Vaccines may be the key to save us from Covid-19, but the strategy that governments are pursuing may make this rescue impossible. 


Lessons From the Japanese Economy
Monday, November 23, 2020
Lessons From the Japanese Economy

Lee Kang-kook, Professor at the College of Economics of Ritsumeikan University in Japan, in SisaIN (November 21, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: Richard Schneider)

Lessons From the Japanese Economy

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), developed economies are expected to record on average a 14.4 percent fiscal deficit and a 20.2 percent surge in public debt. Few doubt the importance of expansionary fiscal policy but the big question mark lingers over the sustainability of high government debt. 

One country stands out in any analysis of government debt. In Japan, public debt began growing significantly in the 1990s because of numerous public-works projects and then through the 2000s with spending relating to the country’s aging society. In 2019, it reached 238 percent of GDP. During all this time, tax revenue continued to decline due to economic recession. Many refer to this time as the “lost decades” as the government was unable to take control of the economy and wage stagnation triggered deflation. 

This negative trend was finally reversed by the policies of Shinzo Abe, who recently stepped down as prime minister. From 2013, the nominal economy started to grow and tax revenue started to increase. This was not accompanied by any significant increase in public spending. An increase in the value-added tax (VAT) led to a positive balance. The interest rate on a 10-year government bond has fallen to near zero and the government has recently been buying back its bonds and now hold about 48 percent of national debt.

The Japanese experience shows the importance of maintaining a growth rate above the interest rate by making use of expansionary fiscal policy and monetary policy. Those who worry about high public debt now may see Japan today as an example and overcome any fear of taking on too much.


Why Invoking the “Ruling Right” Will Not Work in a Cover-Up
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Why Invoking the “Ruling Right” Will Not Work in a Cover-Up

Chang Young-soo, Professor of Constitutional Law at Korea University, in Munhwa Ilbo (November 13, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: IAEA Imagebank)

Why Invoking the “Ruling Right” Will Not Work in a Cover-Up

Although the terrible nuclear incident at Fukushima, Japan, turned public opinion strongly against nuclear power, there was also criticism against throwing out years of research and investment to perfect the technology.

The real turning point, however, came with the release of an audit report on early retirement of Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant I, which found that the economic forecast for the power plant were set too low and that some unfavorable documents had been discarded. These findings cast doubt on the quality of due diligence leading up to the early retirement of the plant and on the integrity of the government.

What has been worse was the administration’s reaction to these findings. Some members of the president’s party accused the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office of being “politically motivated” and labeled the decision regarding the plant’s early retirement to be the “ruling right” of the president. It truly is surprising coming from a party that strongly criticized its predecessor for overstepping its power.

In reality, the executive invokes right to rule only in exceptional cases where due to a critical political situation, legal matters are sidelined in the policy decision-making process. Historically, this right has been executed rarely and with great caution, mostly in national crises involving urgent diplomatic issues. The issue of the power plant is not that grave. Furthermore, citing the ruling right in no way serves as a barrier that fends off investigation. Citizens are left to wonder what the political party is hiding behind its outrageous logic. In any case, once the truth is revealed, those responsible will be held accountable.


Lesson From the Death of a Delivery Man
Monday, November 9, 2020
Lesson From the Death of a Delivery Man

Chang Sok-chu, poet and literary critic, in Segye Ilbo (November 6, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: lamoix)

Lesson From the Death of a Delivery Man

Another delivery man was found dead in his apartment. The cause of the death was overwork and the incident cast yet another spotlight on the brutal reality of the delivery industry where employees work day and night to meet the daily quota of 400 parcels. Although the surge in deliveries is inevitable due to the pandemic, the harsh reality where already 13 workers have lost their lives this year due to overwork is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

Labor exists in many forms. The Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Great Wall in China, and the Taj Mahal in India are all products of labor. Put simply, labor is an act of offering one’s time and energy to bring change. In a modern society, most people offer their labor in return for a fixed salary. In such cases, the laborers are “in servitude” to their employers. In a post-modern society, more and more work takes the form of “performance” where laborers voluntarily choose to push themselves to the limit for achievement. Good as it seems in theory, this shift has created the society of perpetual exhaustion that we know today.

Fatigue is a normal by-product of labor. Extreme accumulation of exhaustion, however, is not and should not be regarded as a normal side-effect of one’s achievements. In many societies, avoiding labor for no reason is not well regarded as is written in the Bible: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” A society must reconsider how it defines and values labor when its members are pushed to the brink every day. Labor must always result in a net benefit for both the laborers and the society. One death from a burnout is one too many to continue our business as usual.


Water Management in a Time of Climate Change
Friday, October 30, 2020
Water Management in a Time of Climate Change

Kim Sung-soo Kim, professor of law at Yonsei University, in The Seoul Shinmun Daily (October 27, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong

Water Management in a Time of Climate Change

We live in a time of climate abnormality. But this is the new normal. According to the United Nations, water management will account for as much as 90 percent of successful adaption to climate change. The International Water Association (ISA) also found that as much as 20 percent of carbon emissions would depend on water management policies. Korean policymakers must pay urgent attention to this.

First, the government must promptly put together a unified water management body. Currently, flood control is separately managed by the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, depending on the body of water and the function. This is not an effective structure to address a crisis such as rapid flooding.

Second, there must be proactive investment made in water management. The latest budget for 2020 shows a stark contrast between 14 trillion won (US$12.4 billion) allocated for road and railway and the 1 trillion (US$887 million) for water management. Also, although 98.4 percent of flooding occurs in the countryside, smaller counties have difficulty securing funds. The central government must step up and provide support.

Third, there needs to be legal and financial support to establish a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions policy.  The European Union has been a leader in this. Meanwhile, the Korean government has started talks on a ‘”Korean New Deal” of economic, environmental and social reforms.

There is an old saying that the “water is the greatest good because it helps everyone”. The times call for immediate action and collaboration between countries, states and generations. Pursuing a water-management strategy would be a critical first step in the right direction.


Learn from History to Meet the Needs of the Disabled
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
Learn from History to Meet the Needs of the Disabled

Kang Shin-wook, Commissioner of Statistics Korea (KOSTAT), in Money Today (October 5, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: Design for Health)

Learn from History to Meet the Needs of the Disabled

October 9 is a national day for Hangul (the Korean alphabet). Although all Korean learn of King Sejong the Great, its creator, not many are aware that the venerated monarch was blind in his later years. Whereas the King sought to lift his people from illiteracy by creating a much easier way of writing, he himself had already lost his sight by the time Hangul was released to the public.

It is also not widely known that King Sejong actively promoted building an inclusive policy for the disabled. When his minister of interior who had a serious spine disability fell down the stairs during an official ceremony, it is said that the King had the stairs enlarged to not let the physical disability discourage his minister. King Sejong also approved giving official titles to musicians with disabilities and created professional public posts designed to give opportunities for the blind. Six hundred years ago, King Sejong was ahead of his time with his policy of inclusion.

According to the recent census, 26 percent (up by 4.5 percent from 2017) of respondents with disabilities ranked medical support as what they needed most, with 24.2 percent citing financial assistance and 18.7 percent (up by 8.7 percent from three years ago) help finding employment.

As the wise king sought to do six centuries ago, the hope is that statistics will help guide the implementation of policies for building a more inclusive and just society for all.


Slow Response After Killing in the DPRK
Thursday, October 1, 2020
Slow Response After Killing in the DPRK

Lee Sang-hyun, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Security Strategy Studies, Sejong Institute, in Munhwa Ilbo (September 30, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: Tomoyuki Mizuta/Pixabay)

Slow Response After Killing in the DPRK

The priority of any government must be to protect its citizens. But the outrageous response of the Korean government after a missing citizen was executed at gunpoint in North Korea seems to indicate otherwise for the current administration. A week after the incident, President Moon Jae-in expressed his condolences, “regardless of how or why the victim was found across border”. He utterly failed to attribute any responsibility to the DPRK. On the same day, the president’s party held a discussion on maintaining peace and restarting private tourism to the North. These inept and insensitive responses indicate three things.

First, the government utterly failed to save a citizen’s life by utilizing the communication channel existing between the two countries. The current government called for a through investigation of the then-president Park Geun-hye following the Sewol ferry accident. By the same logic, there must be a similar investigation into President Moon. 

Second, the government should stop defending North Korea by simply citing leader Kim Jong-un’s “timely and repeated apology”. Instead, it must request a full investigation and a strong reprimand of those responsible. A simple apology should not constitute forgiveness when a citizen’s life was sacrificed.

Third, the government must see through the North Korean tactics. A day after Kim issued the apology for the shooting, the DPRK demanded a full stop to illegal crossing of the military demarcation line. For Pyongyang, the priority has always been the protection of the political status quo. This is not expected to change. 

When the government fails to fulfill its basic duty, people have every right to be angry. The government must remember that it exists at the service of its own citizens before anything else. 


US-China Relations Prompts Shifts in the Semiconductor Sector
Friday, September 18, 2020
US-China Relations Prompts Shifts in the Semiconductor Sector

An Yuhua, Professor of Finance at Sungkyunkwan University Graduate School of China, in Digital Times (September 15, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: SK hynix)

US-China Relations Prompts Shifts in the Semiconductor Sector

Despite the attempt of the US to gain the upper hand over China through aggressive trade policies, whether or not these measures actually serve American interests remains questionable. The US is leading in the global semiconductor industry, while Japan specializes in the supply of strategic chemical materials, the EU in lithography patents, Korea in dynamic random-access memory (DRAM), and Taiwan in foundry and packaging. Despite this landscape where each economy has its comparative advantage, China will now be forced to build an integrated semiconductor industry.

This is both good and bad news for the Korean semiconductor companies. On the one hand, China could potentially become an alternative source for Korean companies that heavily depend on Japanese suppliers and face the risk of a supply cut during political conflict. On the other hand, Chinese progress in memory technology could upend the current comparative advantage of Korean firms. Especially given the scale and massive support Chinese firms may enjoy, once Chinese technology catches up and there is a price war, it will only be a matter of time before South Korean players drop out.

Semiconductors are an indispensable economic base for the South Korean economy. Over the past 10 years, the US semiconductor business has seen increasing challenges from rising global competition. Even when TSMC, the Taiwan semiconductor company, beat the mighty Intel, there was not much the US could do to reverse the situation. In other words, the semiconductor business is shifting to Asia and, given the recent push from the US, there is a real possibility that China will rise to be number one in the world. Given the prospects for such a landscape, Korean firms must learn to look beyond their immediate technological advantage and rigorously prepare for the future to stay competitive in the global market.


Clergy in Need during the Pandemic
Monday, August 31, 2020
Clergy in Need during the Pandemic

Kim Jin-ho, chief researcher at The Christian Institute for the Third Era, in The Kyunghyang Shinmun (August 15, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: Puttipong Klinklai / Shutterstock.com)

Clergy in Need during the Pandemic

Covid-19 cases are on the rise again, and this time, clusters have been centered on religious institutions, especially small churches located in the capital. One of the clusters was found to have started with the pastor himself, who is believed to have been infected while working as a salesman.

Clergy holding a paying job outside the church have long been disallowed, but there has been increasing support for permitting this practice in case of dire economic need. According to one study, the average annual household income for a pastor is 17 million won (US$14,500), which is astonishingly low.

The cleric who started the cluster of recent infections is likely to have depended on his second job for financial survival. It is well known that infections tend to break out in the worst type of work conditions and usually these are the only type of employment to which destitute clergy can turn.

Although this is a serious problem not only for public health but for basic human rights of the clergy, there is little being done to alleviate the problem. Every year there are over a thousand churches that cease operations and fewer than three percent of churches survive beyond five years. Nonetheless, the number of religious institutions continues to increase along with the number of closures. Unless this situation is properly addressed, more desperate church leaders might create Covid-19 clusters, which would make all religious institutions look bad.


Foreign Worker Employment: A Modern Form of Slavery
Friday, August 28, 2020
Foreign Worker Employment: A Modern Form of Slavery

Hong Myung-kyo, researcher and activist, in Kyunghyang Shinmun (August 26, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong (Photo credit: Jose Antonio Diaz)

Foreign Worker Employment: A Modern Form of Slavery

The Employment Permit System (EPS) in Korea came to existence as a necessary measure following an ugly incident involving harsh public mistreatment of a Bangladesh foreign worker in 2003. It was meant to legalize foreign work permits in specific industries such as manufacturing, construction, agriculture and fisheries, where there is acute shortage of local labor supply. There are an approximate 200,000 foreign workers from 16 Asian countries who are legally employed for three to four-year periods under this system.

The EPS, however, has many flaws, of which the most serious is the restriction on foreign workers from having any say in renewing their work permit. This allows employers to dictate fully often unfair terms of employment in exchange for renewal. Another shortcoming is the restraint on foreign workers from freely changing employment. Currently, foreign workers may not change or terminate employment without pre-approval of the existing employer except for non-payment or outright abuse, for which the foreign worker would bear the burden of proof. According to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, over 96.5 percent of workers experienced difficulties in changing employment. In many ways, this is a modern form of slavery.

This model of foreign labor extraction to amplify domestic capital accumulation is but a local version of global labor abuse. Similar practices are easily observed in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong where foreign workers’ rights to choose better employment, fair working conditions, and a workplace free of abuse are suppressed to varying levels.

Humanity has seen colonization and enslavement during most of 20th century. Sadly, today’s foreign labor system is reminiscent of the old days, with the oppressed continuing to suffer and the oppressors perpetuating an unfair system.


To Calm Fears About Tap-Water Quality Will Require Taking Responsibility
Monday, August 3, 2020
To Calm Fears About Tap-Water Quality Will Require Taking Responsibility

Choi Dong-jin, Director, Korea Research Institute for Environment and Development, in Hankook Ilbo (August 1, 2020)

Summary by Soomi Hong

To Calm Fears About Tap-Water Quality Will Require Taking Responsibility

At the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy in even in developed countries did not exceed 50 years. Now, an average life expectancy exceeds 70 years worldwide and for the average Korean is around 83 years. A single biggest reason for this boost is due to clean water: It is widely believed that the previous life expectancy of 40 years was extended by as much as 20 years by water and sewage system improvements alone.

The discovery of worms and larvae in Incheon tap water has shaken the trust in this public resource. In May this year, there was a roundtable panel discussion to mark one year since the contamination incident. In the meeting, various measures to prevent future accidents were discussed and promises were made to prevent a recurrence, yet another outbreak followed less than two months later.

The Ministry of Environment and the Incheon government release the findings of their investigation and their planned countermeasures. Although the authorities will announce further measures that go beyond last year’s, it is questionable whether these actions would effectively prevent all future outbreaks and, more important, whether the public can regain confidence in the cleanliness of tap water.

Only when more people take responsibility than people who blame others will confidence be rebuilt. The responsibility for ensuring clean and safe public water should not be limited only to those working at the facilities but should also include all people working in water, the water experts, the water NGOs and so forth. Perhaps at this public announcement, all them could be present to convey collectively how we can ensure clean and safe water for all.