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It's inequality, stupid.

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By Kim Won-soo

The world stands at a tipping point. The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is a vivid reminder of rising insecurity in global geopolitics. The post-World War II global order led by the United States shows signs of fatigue, increasingly unable to meet the mounting challenges from both competitors and rogue players.

Growing intolerance of differences and diversity undermines social cohesion within and across societies. Both insecurity and intolerance breed a sense of injustice among those who feel marginalized and discriminated against. In the shadows of these three I's (insecurity, intolerance and injustice) lurks a fourth I, inequality.

Without addressing the structural causes of inequality, the vicious circle of the four I's cannot be broken. Absolute poverty is hard to endure. But relative poverty is much harder to endure as comparison trumps everything else in human judgment.

Inequality is on the rise in the following three dimensions of human life. This trend, unfortunately, has aggravated under the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years.

The first is economic inequality. The 2007 global financial crisis made the rich richer and the poor poorer. The perceived mismatch between culpability and punishment led to social movements like "Occupy Wall Street." The crisis originated from Wall Street, but those on Main Street bore the brunt of the consequences.

Even worse, Wall Street emerged as the ultimate winner in the recovery process. The pandemic has caused economic disruptions whose impact proves much more serious than that of the 2007 crisis. Over the last two years, the wealth gap between haves and have-nots has widened both domestically and globally.

The second is social inequality. The pandemic hit the human population hard in almost all aspects of daily life. But it hit underprivileged groups like ethnic minorities and poor seniors even harder. Social tensions are also growing between generations on issues of existential threats like climate change. Older generations tend to put off painful solutions only to put the succeeding generations through the wringer with much worse consequences and costlier burdens.

Last but not least, the digital divide serves as an accelerator of both economic and social inequality. This is the worst inequality of all, as it has long-term negative effects. While the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation which has brought significant benefits to our daily life, it has also widened the digital divide. One of its most serious side effects is the widening of the income and education gaps, which will likely contribute to prolonging inequality for the next generations.

This three-dimensional inequality poses a serious obstacle to engineering a consensus globally and domestically. Globally, the inequality between states hinders consensus-making necessary for implementing unified solutions to global challenges like climate change. This unfortunate situation is being exacerbated by the growing competition among major powers including in particular the United States, China and Russia.

Domestically, the rising inequality puts both democratic and authoritarian states to the test. A growing number of democratic states are experiencing a surge in populism and polarization. Korea is the most recent example where elections are afflicted with deeply polarizing and populist slogans and the results are determined by extremely narrow margins. The 2020 US presidential election showed a similar pattern.

Authoritarian states are not immune either. The perceived inequality between a small ruling elite and the oppressed majority is often a toxic social base for authoritarian rule. Excessive state control may suppress the majority's grievances temporarily, but cannot be a long-term panacea for all of the social ills stemming from rising inequality and the rampant corruption of the elites.

What should Korea do? Domestically, the recent election outcome should serve as a wake-up call for political leaders on both sides of the aisle to work together to address inequality. A consensus must be reached on the need to prioritize the eradication of the three sources of inequality in all relevant government programs. Globally, Korea can work with other like-minded middle powers to bridge the growing international divides: 1) the wealth divide between the global North and South; and 2) the value divide between the West on one side and China and Russia on the other.

These two tasks ― domestic and global ― will require hard work of Korea. But they are not insurmountable if pursued by the incoming government with high priority and with bipartisan support. The successful tackling of these tasks will make the socio-economic foundations of democracy much healthier for Korea. I count on the forward-looking vision and leadership of the new government.

Kim Won-soo ( is the former under secretary-general of the United Nations and high representative for disarmament. He is now the chair of the international advisory board of the Taejae Academy (Future Consensus Institute) and the chair professor of Kyung Hee University.


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