A universal basic income (UBI) of more than $ 400 a month is closing in on reality for South Koreans as top presidential candidates vow to unleash radical policies to combat worsening inequality.
Some economists see the UBI, a government program whereby the state unconditionally pays everyone a monthly sum, as a solution to entrenched poverty and as a way to demolish bloated bureaucracies. But critics believe the policy is impractical and unaffordable.
Lee Jae-myung, who won the ruling party’s primary election this weekend, has vowed to progressively implement the policy during his five-year term if he wins the presidential election in March, which could make the Asian nation the first country. in adopting a national policy. RBU.
“Real freedom is possible only when basic living conditions are guaranteed in all areas, including income, housing and financing,” said Lee, who has been compared to Bernie Sanders, the left-wing US senator.
He added that South Korea “must be a country where injustices and inequalities are resolved and there are abundant opportunities and dreams through sustained growth.”
Under Lee’s plan, all South Koreans would initially receive an annual payment of Won1m ($ 840) that would progressively expand over the years until reaching a monthly sum of Won500,000 ($ 420).
Lee, of the left-wing Democratic Party and governor of the country’s most populous province, is building a popular platform based on aggressive social spending, low-priced public housing and cheap loans for the poor.
But the 56-year-old is not the only one looking for unproven ideas to counter chronic problems that successive governments have been unable to combat: rising costs of education and housing, rising household debt, rising youth unemployment, unprecedented elderly poverty and the world’s lowest fertility rates. .
“As the health crisis drags on, people agree that we need a stronger social safety net. So they are gradually embracing some of the radical platforms that were long considered socialist ideas, ”said Park Chong-hoon, head of research at Standard Chartered.
Kim Dong-yeon, a former popular finance minister who is trying to emulate the model of French President Emmanuel Macron, wants to go even further and completely override the county’s legal system.
“Korean law stipulates only things that are legal, so the rest are considered illegal. But it should be the other way around, as in many other advanced countries, “Kim, who plans to run as an independent candidate, told the Financial Times. He believes the review is necessary to stimulate deregulation and unlock innovation.
Kim is a career bureaucrat who emerged from poverty after discovering a discarded civil service exam book in a garbage can. But now he wants to abolish entrance exams to improve the quality of the country’s bureaucracy, potentially breaking a lifetime security taboo promised to public officials.
Conservative opposition candidates are also embracing the generous frame of mind, moving away from their more austere economic and market trends.
They have sharpened their focus on property prices, a central symbol of South Korea’s growing economic polarization.
Apartment prices have nearly doubled since President Moon Jae-in took office in 2017, despite at least 20 new policy initiatives designed to combat price increases.
Many middle-class households are out of the housing market, and average apartment prices in Seoul reach a million dollars, a threshold few Koreans believed possible.
Yoon Seok-youl, the former chief prosecutor and the main opposition candidate, is trying to attract young voters with a promise of 500,000 half-price homes. Other opposition candidates have proposed a series of massive development projects, including the relocation of a military airport south of the capital to boost the supply of land for housing.
Critics, however, question the sustainability of the plans, citing funding problems.
Paul Choi, an economist at CLSA, an investment group, said a Lee victory could provide a “steroid effect” in the short term, but would put the long-term health of Asia’s fourth-largest economy at risk.
The focus on inequality marks a sea change from five years ago, when Moon came to power in the wake of a spectacular corruption scandal involving Park Geun-hye, the former president accused.
The export boom and a strong healthcare response helped South Korea achieve one of the world’s fastest recoveries from a pandemic-induced recession last year. But senior officials acknowledge that they have been caught off guard by the speed at which the gap between rich and poor has widened during the coronavirus pandemic.
Shin Yul, a professor of politics at Myongji University in Seoul, said next year’s polls appeared to be “dominated by populism.”
“With a lot of people in financial trouble, they want a charismatic leader with a strong image,” Shin said, “regardless of how plausible their platforms are.”