[News analysis] Universal basic income taking center stage of S. Korea’s political discourse

Posted on : 2020-06-09 17:00 KST Modified on : 2020-06-09 17:08 KST
UBI expected to become major issue in next presidential election
The South Korean National Assembly. (Yonhap News)
The South Korean National Assembly. (Yonhap News)

South Korean politicians are increasingly focusing on universal basic income (UBI) as they prepare for the “post-coronavirus” era. With prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle speaking out on the issue, public welfare has taken center stage in political discourse for the first time since the free school meal debate in 2010. The “contagiousness” of the issue is also qualitatively different from before, with the majority of South Koreans having personally experienced the effects of cash-based welfare through their basic disaster allowances. A situation has taken shape in which any politician who is hoping to run in the next presidential election needs to state a clear position on UBI specifically and social service systems in general.

Individual battles cross party lines

The opening salvo in the UBI debate came from the Democratic Party. Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung and South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo, both of whom are affiliated with the party, broached the issue of providing a “basic disaster allowance” irrespective of income back in March, when the negative impact of the novel coronavirus on livelihoods was becoming apparent. The proposals led to the development of emergency disaster relief funds at the central government level, which were distributed to the lowest-earning 70% by income. The Democratic Party subsequently expanded this to all citizens ahead of the general elections on Apr. 15.

The election results gave proof of the power of cash-based welfare -- but until recently, the main focus of the ruling party has been on gradually expanding employment insurance rather than instituting a basic income. The reason stems from the difficulties it faces as the ruling party in terms of fleshing out the immediate specifics of the UBI system, which would require huge amounts of financial resources.

“If employment insurance is expanded to all citizens, that would constitute something like a low-level basic income by itself,” explained a key Democratic Party figure.

“But actually implementing a universal basic income would be beyond this administration’s abilities, as it would lead to increased taxes and an overhaul to social service systems,” the figure added.

The person who ended up turning the tide was Kim Jong-in, chair of the opposition United Future Party (UFP) emergency committee. On June 3, he publicly broached the issue of adopting a basic income, stating that it was his political aim to “expand the material freedom that would allow everyone who is hungry to have bread.” The following day, he officially proposed a discussion, declaring that it was “time to fundamentally examine the universal basic income issue.” Immediately, the issue rose to center stage in political discourse.

On the ruling party side, the most vocal proponent has been Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung, who named a UBI system as his top pledge during the 2017 presidential election. On June 8, he posted on Facebook, “All we have to do is start with what can be done with the present financial resources without replacing social services or increasing taxes, and then work on increasing it gradually as we come up with additional resources.”

“My hat is off to [Kim Jong-in] for his outstanding skill in ushering the topic of UBI into public discussion as a new economic policy that will rewrite economics textbooks,” he added. Meanwhile, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has been seeking to distinguish himself from Lee, stating he views “employment insurance for all South Koreans” as “far more just than a basic income.”

Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Nak-yeon, who seen as the most favored candidate for the next presidential election, stated his position for the first time the same day. Lee posted on Facebook, “I understand the aims of the basic income and welcome the debate for and against it.”

“At the same time, I hope there will be a debate and examination over what the concept of a UBI system is, whether it would be a matter of replacing or supplementing the social service system we’ve been implementing to date, and what ideas there are for ensuring the necessary financial resources and achieving sustainable implementation,” he added.

Among conservatives, Kim’s remarks have touched off internal disagreement. Lawmaker Hong Joon-pyo, an independent formerly associated with the UFP, made his opposition clear, calling basic income guarantees a “socialist distribution system.” In a special talk at a university last year, former lawmaker Yoo Seong-min referred to it as an “issue that we might consider going forward even if it can’t be implemented right away.” People’s Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo has voiced his support for Kim’s position, calling for the examination of a “South Korean basic income model.”

Issue for the next presidential election?

With a reduction in the number of jobs appearing inevitable amid the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the adoption of UBI appears to have emerged as a topic that cannot be ignored any longer. With the next presidential election coming up in 2022, a wide-ranging debate is predicted to arise among major prospective candidates over changes to the social service system and methods of procuring financial resources -- including adjusting annual expenditures, raising taxes, and issuing government bonds.

“With the UBI debate, the associated costs are at a different level from free school meals. It’s hard for anyone to state a clear position,” said Lee Jun-han, a professor at Incheon National University.

“Everyone has been venturing into this debate so they can use it as a ‘brand,’ but we’ll need to see whether it will be a plus or a minus when it comes to the presidential election,” he suggested.

Yoon Tae-gon, policy analysis office chief for Moa Agenda Strategy, noted that free school meals were “something that could be implemented without raising taxes” through adjustments to annual expenditures and other means.

“But with a basic income system, there’s no way of avoiding the debate over increasing taxes. There’s inevitably going to be a debate among politicians over whether to adopt employment insurance for all South Koreans or a basic income, and over how to come up with the funding,” he predicted.

Some observers said the basic income debate among politicians is unlikely to remain sustainable.

“While I can understand the idea of dividing up money through short-term emergency disaster relief funds at a time when incomes and consumption are declining due to the coronavirus crisis, it doesn’t really follow that this would lead directly to a debate over a basic income,” said Woo Seok-jin, a professor at Myongji University.

“The fundamental question when it comes to a basic income is about how to supplement incomes at a time when jobs are disappearing,” he explained. “That isn’t the situation yet for South Korea, so it doesn’t appear likely that this debate will last into the intermediate to long term.”

By Kim Won-chul and Kim Mi-na, staff reporters

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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