“People-driven aspirations: Recovery, Inclusiveness and Resurgence”
The Year of the White Ox is upon us. Painfully aware of the current situation, I wish everyone hope. I can fully understand why people are saying that it doesn’t feel like a new year.
The long battle with COVID-19 has not come to an end. Our lives and safety are still under threat, and unprecedented hardships for people’s livelihoods persist. We also continue to suffer from the loss of daily routines. I extend my profound sympathy to all the people who are going through these tribulations.
However, this year will clearly be different. We will prevail over COVID-19 together. The year 2021 will be a year for recovery, a year for inclusiveness and a year for resurgence.
In 2020, a new infectious disease threatened the lives of humanity and upended daily routines. We were no exception. The world economy also experienced the worst recession since the Great Depression. Our economy could not avoid negative growth either. Everyone had a difficult and trying time. Our people had to endure inconveniences throughout the year. Nonetheless, we were never disheartened. In fact, the Republic of Korea shone amid the crisis. Medical professionals devoted themselves to attending to patients, and citizens voluntarily took on the role of principal agents for epidemic prevention and control.
Our people demonstrated to the entire world, through astounding deeds, the very plain truth that the safety of our neighbors is our own safety. Creative methods initiated by the people for epidemic prevention and control were promptly applied on the frontlines. Korea’s diagnostic kits, “drive-thru” testing and such anti-epidemic supplies as masks were introduced to other countries, thereby greatly contributing to protecting humanity from COVID-19.
Korea’s response to COVID-19 has been built on the dedication and sacrifice of every single one of our citizens. For the first time in the world since the pandemic, we successfully held nationwide elections and the College Scholastic Ability Test. We have also curbed the spread of the virus as much as possible without imposing a lockdown and emerged as one of the most exemplary countries among OECD members in the fight against COVID-19. All of these are invaluable achievements made possible by our people that no one can disparage.
Our people’s spirit of mutual benefit has served as the most powerful driving force in overcoming the economic crisis. The Good Landlord Campaign has led to the movement to help microbusiness owners by paying upfront for future visits and a campaign to purchase pre-packaged farm products. We have sought ways to live together with neighbors in need. Workers have been at the forefront of surmounting the economic crisis, and businesses have retained employees to the maximum extent possible.
With the highest growth rate among the OECD members last year, the Korean economy is projected to join the world’s top ten in terms of GDP. Moreover, our per capita income is anticipated to surpass that of a G7 member state for the first time in history. In addition, Korea’s benchmark stock index KOSPI exceeded the 3,000-point mark for the first time in 14 years after breaking the 2,000-point mark, recording the sharpest rise among the markets in the OECD. All of this points to a bright outlook for the Korean economy even amid crises. The Republic of Korea has never come to a halt. All our people have worked their hardest amid difficulties and proved the Republic of Korea’s crisis-resilient potential.
The end of the dark tunnel is now finally in sight. As uncertainties have largely dissipated, we are now able to plan based on predictions and forecasts. This year, we will leap forward as a pace-setting nation in the new era by fully restoring daily routines and achieving a fast and strong economic recovery. Even with the improvements in the national economy, however, it will take more time for employment to rebound and for mircobusiness owners and the self-employed to recover from the losses they’ve sustained. More than anything else, it is important to accomplish an inclusive recovery that eases the disparities deepened further by COVID-19.
Our most urgent task is to rapidly go back to normal routines free of masks. It is imperative to effectively get past this last critical juncture in epidemic prevention and control that has been showing signs of gradual improvement. Together with the people, the Government will do everything possible to put an end to the third wave of COVID-19 infections at the earliest date possible. Vaccinations can start next month. We will see to it that all citizens will be inoculated free of charge, starting with those prioritized. A treatment developed by a domestic company is also under review for approval. The entire process, from the safety test and authorization of the treatment to its application and effectiveness, will be transparently disclosed.
The development of homegrown vaccines will continue to be encouraged. Securing vaccine sovereignty will ensure that our vaccines enhance our people’s safety and global health cooperation.
A fast, resilient recovery will be achieved on the economic front as well. Our economic growth has already returned to positive territory since last year’s third quarter. Exports in December exceeded US$50 billion for the first time in two years – a record high for that month. Keeping up this momentum will enable our economy to return to its pre-COVID-19 state in the first half of this year.
To support the business lines and income groups hurt by the third wave of COVID-19 infections, the third round of emergency relief payments will start to be distributed from today to 2.8 million microbusiness owners and self-employed people as well as 870,000 vulnerable workers, including the contract-based self-employed, freelancers and caregivers. Even though the amount is admittedly insufficient, I hope the payments will serve as a pump-primer for the recovery of people’s livelihoods. The Government will not stop here and will continue to mobilize all available policy capabilities to restore people’s livelihoods. During the first half of this year, the enlarged budget will be swiftly disbursed so that our economy can return to its pre-COVID-19 level. Public- and private-sector investment projects worth 110 trillion won will be implemented expeditiously.
At the center of people’s livelihoods are jobs. The funds earmarked for creating jobs total 30.5 trillion won, a five trillion won increase from last year. We will intensively inject these funds in the first quarter. Importantly, 1.04 million jobs will be created to directly hire members of vulnerable populations, including the young, senior citizens and people with disabilities.
As part of the efforts to jointly overcome the crisis, the employment and social safety nets will be strengthened further. The employment support program will be implemented starting this month, enabling young people and low-income job seekers to receive relevant assistance and living allowances. Last year saw culture and arts professionals become eligible for employment insurance benefits, and plans to expand coverage of employment insurance to include the contract-based self-employed will begin this July.
To date, some of the elderly, single-parent families and low-income households have been unable to receive living allowances since they are listed as the dependents of someone obligated to support them. Starting this month, however, all of them will become eligible for the allowances. In addition, the family support obligation rules will be completely abolished next year. Going forward, we will continue our efforts to expand the employment and social safety nets, for instance, through universal employment insurance coverage and the introduction of injury and sickness benefits.
In a crisis, it becomes all the more necessary to move forward together, holding one another’s hands. Cooperating to surmount a crisis will make it that much easier to return to daily routines. Last year, it was possible for us to mitigate the employment shock relatively well compared to other countries through proactive job-creation efforts and support for low-income families. Government assistance for low-income households has been significantly increased, which has led to marked improvements in income distribution through fiscal spending.
However, this is still not enough. We will redouble our efforts to restore the people’s livelihoods and expand the safety nets. We will repay those who have endured inconveniences while putting their neighbors first by overcoming the crisis in a manner that narrows disparities so that our people’s hard work will not be in vain.
It is truly regrettable that housing-related hardships have immensely disappointed the people. We will never hesitate to devise measures necessary to stabilize housing. In particular, with a focus on expanding supply, we will quickly work out various housing supply plans that can take effect immediately.
COVID-19 is rapidly changing the global economy. The contact-free economy and digital innovation are gaining speed, accelerating the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Competition will become fiercer among countries to secure a commanding position as the global market changes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The future belongs to those who prepare for it. Our economy has also embarked on a grand transformation into one that is a pace-setter. Our mainstay industries – automobiles and shipbuilding – are regaining their competitiveness. Last year, Korea joined the ranks of the world’s five largest automobile producers and regained the No.1 position in terms of global shipbuilding orders. All of the three new industries that the Government has prioritized – system semiconductors, future cars and biohealth – are rapidly becoming new mainstays with double-digit export growth.
Investments in the future are rising steadily as well. The era of 100 trillion won R&D investments has been ushered in. This is the fifth largest amount in the world. Despite the COVID-19 situation, the second venture boom expanded further with related funds raised reaching a record 5 trillion won last year. In addition, the increase in the number of business ventures, employment growth and exports all reached record highs.
The pace of innovation in our economy will be quickened further through the power of mutual benefit. We overcame the rough waves of Japan’s export restrictions through cooperation between large businesses and SMEs. Also, the mutually beneficial local job programs that started in Gwangju have spread nationwide, fostering new growth engines such as electric cars and cutting-edge materials.
“People” and “mutual benefit” are also at the crux of the Korean New Deal to be implemented in earnest from this year. The full-fledged implementation of the Korean New Deal will bring about changes in every corner of the country. We will nurture new talented individuals, and new growth engines and decent jobs will be created. The Digital and Green new deals will change the quality of the people’s lives.
Above all, it is paramount that the people actually feel the changes made by the Korean New Deal and join us on the path toward becoming a leading country. The focus of the Korean New Deal will be placed on the Regionally Balanced New Deal. Local areas will take the initiative. We will ensure that governments, residents, businesses and talented individuals in local areas can put their heads together to devise practical and creative development strategies.
Enhanced efforts will be made to promote innovation in local economies. We will speed up innovation by designating new regulation-free zones along with financial support that utilizes special grants for central-local government cooperation, among others. In addition, we will accelerate large-scale, pan-regional projects for balanced national development and increase investments in neighborhood infrastructure, thereby further improving the quality of local residents’ lives. If the Korean New Deal permeates our lives through the Regionally Balanced New Deal and produces synergy with existing plans for balanced national development, we will be able to take huge strides toward becoming the innovative and inclusive country we’ve envisioned.
The Government will strive to create a New Deal fund and establish an institutional foundation to ensure the private sector’s active participation. We will swiftly push key legislation related to ten representative areas of the New Deals, including the transition to a digital economy, climate change responses and balanced national development. Communication and cooperation with businesses will be enhanced. I hope the people will also actively participate.
When there is a belief that society is fair, we can opt for the path of coexistence, and the courage that comes from knowing that we can get back on our feet after unsuccessful attempts can help strengthen the power of innovation. With a belief in the power of fairness, we remain committed to upholding its values.
The reform of law enforcement agencies is about putting checks and balances in place. It is also about ensuring that law and order are applied to everyone in an equitable and just manner. Last year, we finally fulfilled the long-awaited task of legal and institutional reforms. The three bills related to a fair economy and the three related to labor will help achieve economic democracy and enhance the potential for sustainable growth. As they are about changing the institutions and practices that have taken shape over a long period, there are undoubtedly going to be numerous difficulties and the potential for conflicts before they take root on the ground. We will engage in close communication and cooperation with various stakeholders to put the reformed systems in place.
We will continue to listen attentively to newly emerging demands for fairness in various sectors of our society – such as the calls to alleviate disparities in education and caregiving in this age of COVID-19, protect essential workers, prevent industrial accidents, eradicate sex crimes and safeguard children from abuse. In so doing, we will make up for any shortcomings in the countermeasures.
The spirit of mutual benefit has to be demonstrated to resolve such global problems as climate change. Our people have a strong determination to live in harmony with nature even if it requires enduring some inconveniences.
This is the first year when the Paris Agreement has to be implemented. The Government has so far pushed for a low-carbon economic structure. The effort will be expanded so our 2050 carbon neutrality implementation plan can take shape this year in energy, industry and all other parts of society. The Government will further accelerate the fostering of the hydrogen economy and low-carbon industry ecosystem and secure a commanding position in the global market. We will prepare together with the people, so when Seoul hosts the 2nd P4G Summit in May, it can become the venue that unites the international community’s resolve to achieve carbon neutrality.
We will leap forward to become a pace-setting nation in soft power as well. Democracy has helped nurture our culture and arts. Together with democracy, the creativity and unrestrained imagination of our culture and arts have become more diverse and competitive. K-content like the film “Parasite” and works of BTS and Blackpink have fascinated people around the world and brought joy. The Government will assist creative activities for arts so that culture and arts professionals can fully demonstrate their creativity and talent. We will also more firmly solidify Korea’s status as a cultural powerhouse, for instance, by promoting the digitalization of Hallyu-related content.
Our tremendously talented athletes and coaches are themselves K-content promoting the Republic of Korea. Last year, Son Heung-min, Ryu Hyun-jin, Kim Kwang-hyun, Ko Jin-young and many other athletes delivered hope and courage to our people and those around the world. Gone is the era when winning a medal was paramount. It is now time for enjoyment. The Government will provide support without interfering so that professional athletes and sports enthusiasts can enjoy sports to the fullest with their human rights fully protected.
COVID-19 forced social distancing upon us but paradoxically showed that the daily lives of people around the world are connected. As a proud middle power, Korea will fulfill the role of a bridge nation so that advanced and developing countries can prosper together through improved mutual understanding.
Following the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and Korea-Indonesia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, we will expand exchanges and cooperation with our New Southern and New Northern Policy partner nations by expediting FTA negotiations with the Philippines, Cambodia and Uzbekistan. Ongoing FTA talks over services and investments with China and Russia as well as negotiations with Brazil and Argentina and other MERCOSUR members and those with Mexico and other Pacific Alliance states will be expedited. We will also give positive consideration to joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and continue to strive for forward-looking Korea-Japan relations.
The Republic of Korea will confidently walk along the path toward becoming a responsible leading nation in terms of soft power as well through our proven capabilities in health and medical services, high civic consciousness, excellent cultural potential, advanced digital technology, commitment to a carbon neutral society and elevated role and status in the international community.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of South and North Korea simultaneously joining the United Nations. The two Koreas should join hands and together prove that a peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula can also contribute to the international community. A peaceful Peninsula free of war and nuclear weapons is what we are obliged to pass down to the Korean people and posterity. The Government will strengthen the ROK-U.S. alliance in step with the launch of the Biden Administration. At the same time, we will make our final effort to achieve a major breakthrough in the stalled North Korea-U.S. talks and inter-Korean dialogue.
Inter-Korean cooperation on its own can achieve many things. Peace equals mutual benefit. We have awakened to the fact that we are closely connected with each other after suffering from infectious livestock diseases, emerging infectious diseases and natural disasters. We are in the same boat in regard to many issues. For the survival and safety of both South and North Koreans, we have to find ways to cooperate.
I hope that the process of dealing with COVID-19 will initiate mutual benefit and peace. I would like the two Koreas to participate in regional dialogues about the Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative for Infectious Disease Control and Public Health as well as the initiative for Korea-ASEAN comprehensive healthcare cooperation. Collaboration in response to COVID-19 can expand to cooperation on issues directly connected to the safety and survival of South and North Koreans such as infectious livestock diseases and natural disasters. The broader cooperation expands, the further we can move along the path toward unification.
The key driving force of the Korean Peninsula peace process is dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation. Our determination to meet at any time and any place and talk even in a contact-free manner remains unchanged. The two Koreas should jointly fulfill all the agreements made together to date – especially the three principles of mutual security guarantees, common prosperity and zero tolerance for war. If we can draw support from the international community in the process, the door to a community of peace, security and life will open wide, not just on the Peninsula but also in East Asia.
Once widely available for purchase, face masks were not products that humanity paid much attention to in daily life. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon us, masks have become a protective gear to safeguard ourselves and, simultaneously, a wonderful item to express consideration for others.
The term “essential worker” was coined as well. While suffering from COVID-19, we have become newly aware of the hard work of those who play indispensable roles for the maintenance of our daily lives. They include individuals working for health services, caregiving, transportation, cleaning and call centers. We have come to the realization that a simple everyday product can at some point become the most important item in our lives. Similarly, we have been reminded once more that many people play vital roles but are still not treated properly.
Last year, we were able to look back on what truly matters in our society. Collective actions were taken while contemplating the fact that when everyone is safe, we are safe.
In 2021, our goals are clear: recovery and resurgence. I would like to add inclusiveness. This year will be a time when we restore our daily lives, recover the economy and narrow disparities.
The era of the Korea discount is over, and we will move along the path of resurgence to become a pace-setting nation in the era of a Korea premium.
Last year was a time when we rediscovered the Republic of Korea, a country resilient to crises. Let us make the year 2021 a great one for recovery, inclusiveness and resurgence.