South Koreans are proud to describe their country's fast industrialization achieved over only half a century as nothing but a miracle. The country has grown into the 11th-largest economy in the world from rubbles of a war, with a per-capita income of more than $15,000 now against less than $70 just 50 years ago.
It is true, however, that a miracle cannot be realized without sacrificing something. Then what was sacrificed for South Korea's achievement of the miraculous economic development in such a short period, and why are we talking about the sacrifice now?
Stories pointing to an ever-widening social divide between the rich and the poor are grabbing newspaper headlines each day, and President Roh Moo-hyun is calling for the need to sharply increase welfare spending even when the economy is still struggling with the fragile consumer spending and a slow recovery in the job market.
I would not list here a huge amount of data showing problems such a widening social divide can bring about, but let me just tell you a story. Imagine one of your neighbors with a wife, three kids and his retired parents suddenly loses his job. You may say he deserves some financial difficulties because he is partly responsible for the loss of job. But what happens to the other members of his family?
Is South Korea's family members in terms of basic needs such as medication and education? Apparently not, to my regret! Sadly, this experience will make this father extremely reluctant to pay social welfare system, also called the social safety net, established well enough to support his more tax to finance increasing government welfare spending, even after he finds a new job and has a new source of income.
I mentioned both miracle and mirage in this article to emphasize the fact they are little different from each other because both are something unbelievable. The widening gap between the haves and the have-nots can definitely play an important role in making the miracle of South Korea's industrialization a mirage that lasts only in memory. As long as the gap keeps widening, South Korea will soon face a vicious circle of slowing economic growth and increasing population in poverty.
It's time for all South Koreans to think about not only their future but the future of their country.
-By Yoo Chun-sik (Reuters Deputy Bureau Chief)
(The writer has been working for Reuters for more than ten years and is currently the News Editor and Deputy Bureau Chief in Seoul.)