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[Editorial] Time to decide

Panel offers multiple scenarios of pension reform; Final plan must have single choice

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 23, 2023 - 05:30

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As the National Pension Fund draws nearer to depletion, reforming the National Pension Scheme has become an urgent matter. However, the government and lawmakers kept putting off reforms out of fear of the backlash it will provoke. It is about time they decided.

A government advisory panel on national pension reforms is said to have reached a conclusion that contributions must be raised and the pension age postponed, but the income replacement rate maintained as it is. This means that workers should pay more and start receiving their pensions later but the ratio of pension to pre-retirement income should be unchanged.

The problem is that there are nearly 20 combinations of contribution rate hikes, minimum pension ages and return rate options, and that it did not prioritize the scenarios. It is questionable if the National Pension Scheme will be reformed this time. Furthermore, less than eight months are left until the general elections. Pension reform is a taboo in an election season because an increase in the economic burden on voters will be inevitable.

Currently, the contribution rate is 9 percent, the replacement rate 40 percent and the normal minimum pension age is 60 to 65. It was estimated this year that the fund would run out in 2055.

The panel suggests three contribution rate hikes -- to 12 percent, 15 percent and 18 percent. In this case, the fund is estimated to run out 8 years, 16 years and 27 years later, respectively. Its report is expected to contain three other suggestions to push back the minimum pension age -- to 66, 67 and 68. If the proposals on contribution rate and minimum pension age are combined, that means there will be nine scenarios in total.

If alternative fund return rates are also considered, the number will rise to 18. The panel is said to have studied raising the annualized average of fund return rates in two ways -- by 0.5 percentage points and 1 percentage points. They are expected to delay fund depletion by two years and five years, respectively. Investment returns need to be raised, but it is questionable if the raises are adequate and realistic as a means to postpone the year of fund depletion.

It is hard to regard the simple enumeration of options as a reform plan. The panel had meetings more than 20 times after November last year but failed to produce a unified opinion. In 2018, an advisory committee proposed two options on national pension reform. The year of fund depletion has now moved up further than when it was estimated in 2018. Considering this, it is irresponsible to suggest nearly 20 scenarios.

Now that the panel wrapped up its activity by presenting various scenarios, it has become more burdensome for the government to decide on its reform plan.

First of all, it needs to learn from the pension reform failure by the previous Moon Jae-in administration. In 2018, Moon rejected the Health and Welfare Minister's national pension reform draft, saying that "raising the contribution rate, among others, does not fit what people expect." It was an excuse to evade responsibility.

Few people would welcome a contribution rate hike, but it is unavoidable if the year of fund exhaustion should be delayed. Moon refused to do so, apparently because he did not want to take responsibility. The Moon administration sent a national pension reform plan to the National Assembly that suggested four choices. It left it up to the Assembly to choose one. Reform could not happen this way.

Now the ball is in the government's court. It said it would submit its national pension reform plan to the National Assembly by the end of October. It will have to put forward a single proposal, not a list of choices. The National Assembly must rush to legislate pension reform.