North by north-south

Jennifer Buckingham

19 May 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

JB MPSWhen the regional meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) was scheduled to be held in Seoul, few people would have predicted that it would take place at a time when tensions between North and South Korea would be at their highest level for several decades — partly fuelled by a hyper-hawkish Trump administration.

Even fewer people would have foreseen there would be a presidential election in South Korea during the meeting, due to the impeachment of Park Guen-Hye over corruption allegations.

While this national security context troubled some participants in the lead-up to the MPS meeting, there was never any indication it might be moved or rescheduled. In fact, it was highly appropriate for MPS to hold their nerve, because the ideals it embodies and promotes are crucially important for the continued peace and prosperity of South Korea.

Free market economics are at the core of MPS but the classical liberal philosophy it espouses goes beyond monetary policy and economic output measures. It is also about the morality of freedom and the dignity of human life. The ultimate goal of any policy or political system is to protect and preserve freedom and dignity, and there is little doubt that free market economies and robust democracies are the most effective at achieving those aims.

While South Korea still has a long way to move on the freedom index, its progress has been astonishing. In the four decades from the 1960s, its GDP grew from one similar to poor African and Asian countries to a competitive trillion-dollar world economy. Infant mortality rates per 1000 births dropped from 80 in 1960 to 3 in 2015.

Despite living under the threat of attack from North Korea every day — to the extent that there are sign-posted bomb shelters dotted throughout the CBD of Seoul — the people of South Korea still palpably yearn for peaceful re-unification. A powerful symbol of this hope is the Dorasan train station, constructed 15 years ago near the Demilitarised Zone (aka the DMZ) that marks the border between South and North. A functioning train station, it sits largely idle, ready and waiting for the day the two halves of the nation are reconnected.

MPS meetings are characterised by debate, discussion and, at times, respectful disagreement. One thing was unanimously supported, however — the aspiration that one day soon there will be the opportunity to attend an MPS meeting in PyongYang.

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