The main opposition Democratic United Party and the Federation of Korean Industries are engaged in a tense war of words, trading barbed accusations over “democratizing the economy.” The escalating tension shows no sign of letting up. Instead, it will probably continue to heat up in the months ahead, turning economic democratization into a major issue for the December presidential election.
Economic democratization may sound an elusive concept. But it simply refers to business regulations in the context of the Korean Constitution.
It is a constitutional stipulation “to democratize the economy through harmony among the economic agents.” If it is deemed necessary, the state may regulate and coordinate economic affairs for the purpose of democratizing the economy. It may also do so for the purpose of ensuring proper distribution of income, preventing a select few from dominating the market and abusing their economic power.
The war over the issue of regulating chaebol had remained dormant until recently. But it flared up again when the FKI, the lobby for business conglomerates, signed a memorandum of understanding on Monday with the Korea Society of Regulatory Studies, a think tank on business regulations, on monitoring legislation initiated by lawmakers.
The next day, Rep. Park Jie-won, floor leader of the liberal opposition party, accused the FKI and the think tank of harboring the idea of “launching an economic coup d’tat.” He said they were “arrogant and impudent” enough to attempt to derail the constitutionally guaranteed efforts for economic democratization.
In response, the FKI launched a counterattack through its proxies ― newspapers owned by business conglomerates. One of them claimed in its editorial that many lawmakers outsource their bills to law firms and put their names on regulatory bills as co-writers when it said they are not knowledgeable about their impact on the economy. Another daily accused the opposition party of seeking to pass “anti-free market bills.”
Among the bills the opposition party is planning to write is one banning a corporation affiliated with a business group from making a new investment in another affiliate. The opposition party is also seeking to strengthen the separation of financial capital from industrial capital by regulating investments by industrial companies in financial firms, and expand exclusive business areas for small and medium-sized enterprises.
Juxtaposed against economic democratization is freedom guaranteed to business enterprises. As reminded by the FKI, it is not economic democratization alone that the Constitution embraces as a cause worth pursuing. It also calls for a free-market economy in which business enterprises should not be excessively restricted in their pursuit of economic gain. A constitutional article reads in part: “The economic order of the Republic of Korea is based on a respect for the freedom and creative initiative of enterprises and individuals in economic affairs.”
In other words, the government should strike a balance between imposing regulations on business conglomerates and ensuring their freedom in the pursuit of profits. Nonetheless, the FKI is apparently fighting an uphill battle against the main opposition party, given that even the ruling Saenuri Party is moving toward economic democratization ahead of the presidential election.
Rep. Nam Kyung-pil, a leading member of the conservative ruling party, who has joined the chaebol bashing, proposes to accommodate some of economic reforms pursued by the opposition and write them into law. He says lawbreaking chaebol heads should be denied presidential amnesty and other types of leniency. Conservatives, he says, become reactionaries if they refuse to go ahead with reforms.
But what is wrong with the FKI monitoring the political community’s move to regulate business conglomerates? That is a legitimate action, not an economic coup d’tat, that can be taken by a special interest group such as the FKI. In a pluralistic society, it should be allowed not just to monitor regulatory legislation but to lobby against it.
The last thing that the political community should do is strangulate business enterprises with regulations. Korean conglomerates, with one hand tied behind their back, cannot compete effectively against global behemoths. Aren’t Samsung, SK, LG and other family-controlled business groups making great contributions to the nation’s economic advances by promoting exports and hiring people?