By Sah Dong-seok
Deputy Managing Editor
The adage ``There's no such thing as a free lunch'' is generally accepted as most people think nothing is free and that somebody is paying for the lunch of others.
Yet free lunch will likely soon be provided to Korean students amid the latest round of controversy involving populism.
The issue of free meals has already emerged as a hot potato in the political community ahead of the June 2 local elections that will elect mayors, provincial governors, council members, and so on.
The latest controversy was ignited when Kim Sang-gon, the incumbent superintendent of the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education, pledged to introduce free meals for all elementary and middle school students in Gyeonggi Province in an election last April and was elected with the support of the progressive Korean Teachers and Education Workers' Union.
Upon being elected, he asked Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon-soo, who belongs to the governing Grand National Party (GNP) to provide funds for free meals. Kim and the Gyeonggi Provincial Council, led by the GNP, turned down the request and instead approved an alternative plan that will benefit only the children of low-income households.
Superintendent Kim, himself a progressive, claims that all elementary and middle school students subject to compulsory education should get free meals at school, rich and poor alike, under the concept of ``universal welfare.''
On the contrary, the GNP and President Lee Myung-bak made clear their objection to the blanket provision of free lunches, saying benefits should be limited initially to low-income families and expanded gradually in consideration of limited resources.
When I heard Superintendent Kim cling to the meal issue last year, it occurred to me that he and his progressive colleagues had already embarked on re-election campaigns capitalizing on the populist nature of the provision of free lunches. He might be an excellent populist who has made up his mind to use the issue as leverage for his re-election.
Indeed, he has already become a popular figure, lured by many opposition politicians who have been preparing to run for the local polls, including Rep. Kim Jin-pyo of the main opposition Democratic Party who is seeking to become the governor of Gyeonggi Province.
What if his request for funds is accepted at the local council and free meals are offered to all primary and middle school students in Gyeonggi Province? His re-election would have been almost certain.
The logic runs like this. In the run-up to the June 2 local polls, Superintendent Kim could threaten voters by saying that free meals would be halted if other candidates are elected. A household with two children could lose about 900,000 won a year as each child pays 2,500 won per meal on the assumption that free lunches are offered five days a week for nine months a year.
That's quite a bit for an ordinary household. Who would be brave enough not to cast a vote for such a generous candidate?
Free meals for all students can be justified when resources are abundant. But the reality is just the opposite. This year's budget of his education office is tallied at about 8.2 trillion won and if such ``rigid'' expenses as payroll are excluded, the available resources would be less than 1 trillion won. His pledge to provide free lunch to 1.39 million primary and middle school students in Gyeonggi is estimated to cost about 660 billion won, resulting in only 340 billion won for other education programs for this year.
His obsession with free meals seems illogical in many respects. More than anything else, it would be contradictory if progressives such as Kim advocate free meals for the rich because they have been arguing in favor of heavier taxation for the rich. Their intentions are to win favor from voters with the vote-getting impact of free lunches still immeasurable ahead of elections.
The issue of free meals is already showing signs of shaking the political landscape. The largest opposition DP and other opposition parties have adopted free lunches as one of their major election pledges and even some members of the governing GNP, including Seoul mayoral candidate Won Hee-ryong, have jumped on the bandwagon.
The populist nature of free meals is evident, given that some liberal newspapers, such as Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang, have been most aggressive of late in reporting news stories related to free lunches. They have spared plenty of space for such stories in what is believed to be attempts to make it the most contentious issue in the local elections.
Populism may be inevitable in a democracy where the will of people determines everything but its specter will leave a host of lasting and negative legacies. Now we are going through difficult times owing to a populist pledge made by a former president ― the creation of Sejong City ― and we must not repeat such a blunder.