Pension reform is one of three major reforms being pursued by the Yoon Suk Yeol administration. The other two are labor and education reforms.
But the pension reform proposal unveiled by the government on Friday is disappointing.
The plan did not present specific figures on pension premium rates, the starting age of pension payout and payout amount. It was a proposal lacking substance.
It would be difficult to persuade lawmakers and people even with figures and good grounds, but this proposal doesn't even have them. The plan just calls for a "gradual" increase of the national pension premium rate. The likelihood of legislation to revamp the national pension scheme before the general election has fallen further.
Former President Moon Jae-in turned away from the urgency to reform the national pension system throughout his five-year presidency. In November 2018 he scrapped a Ministry of Health and Welfare plan to increase the premium rate. The ministry unwillingly submitted a four-choice proposal to the National Assembly, which did not handle it. The proposal presented by the government this time went backward further than the previous multiple-choice one.
The government said it would talk with the National Assembly and gather more public opinions to determine figures. Discussion and opinion gathering are words the government has said countless times. A lot of panel discussions have been held so far.
What matters now is neither discussion nor opinion gathering but choosing target figures and persuading people. But the government has left this up to the National Assembly.
The national pension system is in a very precarious situation. Experts forecast in March that the fund would be depleted by 2055, two years earlier than previously forecast. The Moon government effectively idled time away as the number of premium payers was decreasing while that of pensioners was increasing.
Unless the fund is replenished quickly, people born in 1990 will not receive pension when they reach 65 in 2055. For them to receive a pension, subscribers should pay 26.1 percent of their incomes in premiums from 2055 and 35 percent from 2080.
In order to avoid this dire situation, experts held meetings from August last year and finally presented 24 options to the government on Oct. 19. Reportedly, the most convincing option was to raise the premium rate to 15 percent, delay the age at which people can start to receive their pension to 68, and elevate the return of investment by 1 percentage point. The government adopted the fund return goal but rejected the other two.
The government said it took great pains over the reform, but it is easy to guess what it labored over. It likely paid the most attention to the general elections in April next year.
Reforms demanding people pay more are unpopular. Yoon has said that he would not avoid reforms even if they are unpopular. But his government presented a reform proposal without substance. It can say nothing if it is criticized for being no different from the previous administration.
The pension reform proposal is scheduled to be submitted to the National Assembly on Tuesday. The National Assembly launched a special committee on pension reform in October last year, which would work for a year, but the committee effectively sat on its hands. Rival parties extended the committee's term to the end of May next year -- after the election -- citing the need to gather more opinions. Lawmakers are likely to put off pension reform until after the general elections.
Pension reform is an extremely difficult task. Past governments pushed it, which happened only twice in 1998 and 2007. It will likely be dealt with in the new National Assembly after the general elections.
Reforming the pension scheme, particularly raising the premium rate, is never easy ahead of elections. And yet it cannot be delayed indefinitely.
The government must present specific goals, and the Assembly must speed up discussion and complete pension reform with legislation. If it is not done under the current administration, it will be much more difficult for the next government to do.