Sungdal Kim, CCEJ's Secretary General, who was appointed in 2023. Courtesy of CCEJ.

Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice: Reforming South Korea’s electoral system is essential to eradicating inequality

News 17.03.2023

The Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ), South Korea’s oldest and one of its most influential NGOs, was set up in 1989 to fight for economic justice. These days, CCEJ is adding electoral reform to its focus as a new avenue to address systemic inequalities, Sungdal Kim, CCEJ’s Secretary-General appointed earlier this year, told us in a recent interview.

CCEJ, which received the Right Livelihood Award in 2003, advocates for a citizens’ movement aimed at building an equitable society.

Through rapid industrialisation starting in the 1960s, South Korea has developed into a prosperous country, ranking as the world’s 10th largest economy today. However, the growth brought inequalities and power structures that plague the country’s high-tech society.

“Since its inception, CCEJ has been focusing on the eradication of real estate speculation and the reform of the chaebol that is made up of family-owned conglomerates in Korea – and this year, we are going to go further than that and initiate a year of electoral reform,” Kim said.

Chaebol refers to a family-owned conglomerate controlled by members of the family and other affiliated individuals. The most prominent ones include global household names such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG. Given their economic weight, these families and their corporations have undue political influence.

This has created a political system under chaebol control where the government is not focused on creating policies that serve ordinary people.

“I think the reason why the politicians are not coming up with policies for these people is they are not willing to solve this entrenched chaebol problem but [are] more sensitive to the lobbying of the chaebols than the people because of plutocracy,” Kim said.

For example, ordinary people would benefit from job creation at small or middle-sized enterprises. However, those smaller companies have little chance against the established monopolies enjoying government support.

“The problem is the power of chaebols in big towns as well as entrenched vested interests in politics, supporting those politicians in the election,” Kim said.

When it comes to the housing problem, the situation is similar, with the interests of developers and investors often put before those of ordinary citizens.

“The main reason is the government’s misguided property policies that encourage housing speculation,” Kim said.

While housing prices are falling under current President Yoon Suk Yeol, they skyrocketed under previous President Moon Jae-in.

One issue is the lack of affordable housing: large developers are allowed to cheaply expropriate land and then sell new apartments at a premium. Within Korea’s pre-sale system, people can only buy new apartments before they are completed – often at unreasonable prices that have little government oversight.

This system, including loans and taxation, might drive up housing prices, benefitting the rich, while the poor or ordinary people get quickly priced out.

CCEJ’s work to combat these issues has focused on exposing policy problems and informing the public about them. The organisation also advocates for alternative and new policies for people who have been harmed due to the government’s policy.

CCEJ sees these problems as tightly connected to South Korea’s political system. This is why CCEJ is aiming to bring citizens together to develop a movement towards electoral reform ahead of parliamentary elections set for April 2024.

“We are going to bring both the political sphere and civil society together to make various alternatives for chaebol reform, housing reform and political reform,” Kim said.

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