SEOUL, South Korea – Creating jobs, ending corruption and boosting stubbornly low birthrates should be high on a to-do list for South Korea's next president after a campaign mostly dominated by security and foreign policy issues.
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There's concern that the economy will likely take a backseat to North Korea when South Koreans pick their next leader on Tuesday. Voters have been rattled by a row over who should foot the bill for a U.S. anti-missile system deployed in the country to defend against North Korean aggression, after President Donald Trump suggested that South Korea should pay more for U.S. security commitment.
Public demand for change in South Korea's economic system remains high as growth and wealth continue to be concentrated in the hands of top few family-run business giants known as chaebol. Anger over allegations of collusion between big businesses and the government helped trigger massive monthslong protests that led to the ouster of President Park Geun-hye in March and the arrest of the de-facto leader at Samsung, South Korea's largest business group.
Leading presidential contenders have tried to tap into the discontent over economic injustice, high youth unemployment and increased inequality between those with full-time jobs at chaebol and those who are underemployed or looking for work.
But the lack of concrete reform plans means that none of their economic agenda gained much attention during the campaign.
"Candidates fell short of expectations from the public and could not thoroughly cover the reform agenda to change the economic system," said Park Sang-in, a professor at Seoul National University's Graduate School of Public Administration. "Their talks on jobs and innovation were so superficial that they could not win public support."
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On jobs, the two main contenders hold different views on what the government should do.
Moon Jae-in, the front-runner from the main opposition Democratic Party, believes that a bigger government would be better for creating jobs and says South Korea needs more public workers. His main rival Ahn Cheol-soo also puts jobs high on his policy agenda but says the government should not be heavy-handed in intervening in the private sector and instead focus on making the markets fair and friendlier for innovation.
"The origin of every crisis in South Korea is jobs," Moon said during an economic debate. "It is because economic growth has continued without creating jobs and markets have failed to create jobs for a long time."
Moon's campaign pledges include creating 810,000 jobs in the public sector, including bureaucrats, firefighters and social workers, at a cost of 4.2 trillion won ($3.7 billion) per year. Moon said he will add an extra budget of 10 trillion won ($8.8 billion) immediately once he takes office and a lion's share of that will be allocated for job creation.
Ahn's campaign has argued that Moon's approach is no different from the previous governments that have relied on chaebol for economic growth, showering them with special treatment that resulted in cozy ties that in many cases led to corruption.
Instead, his team supports the idea of easing regulations to encourage companies to take risks while the government focuses on supporting small firms.
"So far, South Korea's growth has been led by the government while giving special treatments to chaebol. That should change now," Ahn said. "When the private sector, especially when small- and medium-sized companies and venture firms grow, more quality jobs will be created."
The two leading candidates also differ in what would be the best way to help small companies and encourage the country's young talents who are drawn to high wages and job security at Samsung, Hyundai and other big businesses, to take more risks and work at small firms.
Moon has pledged that the government will pay the salary of one in every three workers at small companies for three years. Ahn has promised that the government will guarantee high wages to young workers at small firms by giving $440 per month to an employee hired by a small company for two years.
The new South Korean president, who will take office May 10, will face a narrowing window of opportunity to restore the vitality in Asia's fourth-largest economy.
There has been a growing sense of doom and lack of hope, especially among South Korea's young generations. Youth unemployment has surged last year to nearly 10 percent — the highest since 2000. Flagging birthrates have never surpassed 1.3 babies per woman for nearly two decades.
Government welfare spending is among the lowest in the world. Corporate culture is famous for being unfriendly to family or to raising children with one of the world's longest working hours. That has created a vicious cycle of growing number of people who postpone or even give up on starting a family.
Both Moon and Ahn recognize that the next administration should change all: the hereditary succession at the big businesses that distort market rules; the gaps between the full-time, stable jobs and contract jobs; the corporate culture and long working hours hostile to raising children.
Whoever wins, South Korea will likely see attempts to limit the power of chaebol's founding families, whose influence is compared to emperors even though they hold a small stake in publicly listed companies founded by their fathers or grandfathers.
To pass down the companies to the next generation of the founding families, it was common for them to make an elaborate scheme involving giving lucrative businesses to their sons and daughters and creating a complicated web of cross-shareholding.
On chaebol reforms, Moon and Ahn's pledges have been almost identical. They have promised to stop such unfair business leadership successions and to respond sternly to the white collar crimes committed by chaebol's founding families.
The role of the trade regulator will be increased, they say. Improving corporate governance with the measures that would allow minority shareholders to have their voices heard on companies' boards is also a key part of the chaebol reform plans for both candidates.
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