South Korea Premier Says Universal Basic Income ‘Impossible’

South Korea’s prime minister warned that universal basic income was “impossible” to implement, drawing a sharp contrast with other populist contenders for the presidency ahead of an election next year.

In an interview with Bloomberg News on Wednesday, Chung Sye-kyun said “politics based on populism” is “bound to fail.” The idea of across-the-board income support to address inequality has been backed by others in President Moon Jae-in’s progressive camp aiming to replace him when his single, five-year term ends in a little more than a year.

“There is no country on the face of earth that has successfully carried out a universal basic income system,” said Chung, a key player in Moon’s administration who has spearheaded South Korea’s much-lauded coronavirus containment strategy. “Populism disables decision makers from making reasonable decisions. It may appear good for a while, but eventually people will regret it.”

South Korea Premier Says Universal Basic Income ‘Impossible’

Chung said South Korea doesn’t have the resources necessary for universal basic income and would need to scrap all existing welfare benefits to make it work. He called for taxpayer funds to be targeted at those who have suffered the most economic damage from the pandemic through stimulus checks or a “loss-compensation” plan.

The political veteran has seen his fortunes rise after the country was able to put a lid on Covid-19 faster than many developed nations, helping it post some of the strongest economic numbers in the pandemic era. Moon said he expects the economy to rebound to pre-pandemic levels in the first half of this year.

South Korea Premier Says Universal Basic Income ‘Impossible’

Born in 1950, the year the Korean War broke out, Chung grew up in poverty, and worked for a major company before joining the political ranks, where he embraced liberal positions backed by pragmatic approaches. While Chung declined to comment on whether he was running for president, a survey in January ranked him as a prominent contender to replace Moon.

South Korea Premier Says Universal Basic Income ‘Impossible’

Moon’s approval rating was hovering near its lowest level since he took office in 2017, according to a Realmeter tracking poll released Thursday. While his government has won support for its virus control, Moon has seen his support erode among a public that has criticized him for not doing enough to rein in runaway real estate prices and narrow an income inequality gap that ranks among the highest in the developed world.

South Korea Premier Says Universal Basic Income ‘Impossible’

Chung, who has also served as speaker of the National Assembly and cabinet minister, backed a strict no-lockdown strategy that relied on rapid testing, contact-tracing and quarantines at the border. This included a decision to leave open the border with China -- South Korea’s biggest trading partner.

In the interview, Chung offered praise for new U.S. President Joe Biden, criticized the sanctions campaign on North Korea, extended an olive branch to rival Japan and defended a relatively late vaccine rollout.

Here are some highlights:

Biden:

“Biden, he’s a magnificent politician. I respect his philosophy for politics, and if that’s the factor people see in me, I would consider that something to be really proud of. I wish President Biden the ultimate success, and if we’re similar in that way -- if he succeeds, doesn’t it mean that I succeed too?”

Vaccines:

“We’re aware of other nations that have started vaccinations first, and there will be comparisons with those countries, but we’ll face that judgment when we get there. For now, I’d just like to emphasize that we’re right on schedule.”

North Korea:

“The way I see it, the problem isn’t being solved because the sanctions imposed by the United Nations or the U.S. are weak. If it was an issue that would be solved by sanctions, there’s no reason to oppose even stronger sanctions. However, because it won’t solve the problem, I think it’s right to start the dialogue instead of spending time on agreeing on sanctions and imposing them.”

Japan:

“There are history-related issues and other matters, and we’re aware that we’re the victims of the history-related issues. However, it’s appropriate to approach this on a two-track mechanism. The current affairs matters, such as diplomacy, defense and cooperation should be something we work on together, while history-related matters are dealt with under mutual understanding, even if it takes some time.”

Corporate Profit Sharing:

“I agree with the philosophy, on how corporates should take social responsibility. But it’s difficult to be institutionalized in reality. Corporates’ contribution should be voluntary.”

Gender:

“Back in the old days, we talked about inequality and this sort of issue being quite serious, and they even passed legislation for gender equality, but now, we’re already at the level of a developed country. Actually, for a country with a population of more than tens of millions of people, isn’t South Korea a country where a young woman can walk around at night, anywhere, by herself?”

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