Worrying unemployment figures among youth: Korea Herald

Workers rally for improvement of working conditions in Seoul on June 15, 2021. - AFP

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN): A string of data released last week showed structural deterioration in South Korea's unemployment problem, heightening the need for a shift in the government's policy efforts toward job creation.

The number of discouraged workers in the country stood at 583,000 in June, up 46,000 from a year earlier, according to figures from Statistics Korea.

It was the highest tally for the month since the state statistics office began compiling related data in 2014.

Discouraged workers refer to those who have not sought to find jobs in the last four weeks due to no suitable job positions or other reasons, though they are eligible for employment and are willing to work.

Those in their 20s and 30s accounted for 46.8 per cent of the total discouraged workers last month, up 8.2 percentage points from the year before.

Separate data from the statistics agency showed the number of young Koreans preparing for job recruitment exams hit a record high of 859,000 in May, up 55,000 from a year earlier.

The figure accounted for 19.1 per cent of 4.49 million economically inactive people aged 15-29. The proportion was also the highest since the agency started tracking related data in 2006.

The rise in the numbers of discouraged workers and people preparing to take job recruitment exams suggests many young people are being forced into long-term joblessness amid increasing difficulties in landing proper positions.

Government officials are quick to attribute the deteriorating employment conditions mainly to the economic fallout from the prolonged pandemic.

But the labour market remained sluggish before the outbreak of Covid-19 here early last year as President Moon Jae-in's administration has pushed for ill-conceived policies, which have held back companies from increasing investment and hiring more workers.

Since assuming office in 2017, the Moon administration has implemented a set of pro-labour measures such as steep hikes in the minimum wage and a shortened workweek to carry forward its income-led growth drive.

These moves have resulted in dampening corporate activity, leading to a reduction in the number of well-paying decent jobs offered by private companies.

The Moon government has spent more than 20 trillion won (S$23.5 billion) annually to fund job creation programmes. But most of the jobs created with taxpayers' money have been low-paid part-time and temporary jobs largely taken by senior citizens.

As of 2020, 15.37 per cent of all employed Koreans aged 15 or over were part-time employees, up from 12.2 per cent in 2018. The increase rate over the two years was the steepest among 34 comparable member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to a recent analysis by the Paris-based body of rich countries.

Part-time workers are defined by the OECD as those who typically work less than 30 hours per week in their main job.

Korea also saw the proportion of temporary workers among the entire workforce increase from 21.2 per cent to 26.1 per cent, the second in 35 OECD members surveyed, over the cited period.

What's particularly embarrassing for the Moon administration is the high jobless rate for youths, which goes up to around 25 per cent when counting in those who have given up looking for jobs.

Earlier this month, the government announced a package of cash handout programs to strengthen support for unemployed and low income-earning youths under what was described as the "Human New Deal" initiative.

Such benefits may be necessary for young people in predicament. But what they need most is more opportunities to land stable decent jobs, which should be offered mainly by private companies.

With less than 10 months left before Moon's five-year term ends, his administration should still step up efforts toward regulatory and labour reforms to encourage companies to increase investment and employment.

Nearly a third of people preparing for job recruitment tests plan to take civil service exams in the hope of becoming mainly low-ranking public servants.

Civil service posts might be preferred by young people due to greater job security. But the lack of proper job positions in the private sector seems to push so many youths to take the civil service route.

The country's distorted labour market cannot be left unaddressed any longer. The Moon government, which has vowed to put top priority on job creation, should do what is necessary to reduce long-term joblessness among young people. - The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

With eye on China, Pentagon chief Austin heads to South-East Asia

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/ANN): United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will become the first member of President Joe Biden's Cabinet to visit South-east Asia this week, seeking to emphasise the importance Washington places on fortifying ties in the region while pushing back against China.

The US has put countering China at the heart of its national security policy for years and the Biden administration has called rivalry with Beijing "the biggest geopolitical test" of this century.

Six months into his presidency, however, South-East Asian countries are still looking for details of Biden's strategy as well as his specific plans for economic, trade and military engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

"You'll hear me talk a lot about partnerships and the value of partnerships," Austin told reporters enroute to Alaska.

"My goal is to strengthen relationships," he said.

In a keynote speech in Singapore on Tuesday (July 27) and meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines, Austin will call out aggressive Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea and stress the importance of keeping the wider region free and open.

His trip follows the first visit by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to China on Sunday and Monday and coincide with a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to India, another important partner in US efforts to counter Beijing.

Experts say Austin's presence is important to make clear that South-East Asia is a vital component in Biden's efforts.

"The administration does understand that this region is critical, so that's a big part of it: Just showing up," said Gregory Poling, a senior fellow for South-East Asia at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

An Asian diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it appeared the Biden administration was now directing its focus more firmly on Asia after addressing other global issues, such as relations with Russia and Europe.

Austin had been due to visit the region in June, but was forced to postpone due to Covid-19 restrictions in Singapore.

So far the Biden administration has broadly sought to rally allies and partners to form a united front against what it says are China's increasingly coercive economic and foreign policies.

One pillar of engagement that has been conspicuously lacking has been on the economic and trade side after Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact in 2017.

The administration has made clear it is in no rush to rejoin such a pact, which critics say would cost US jobs, but has been discussing the possibility of smaller agreements such as on digital trade.

The Pentagon has completed a study of its China policy and Austin has issued an internal directive calling for several initiatives, but few details have emerged.

The US Navy has maintained a steady pattern of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and near Taiwan but these appear to have done little to discourage Beijing.

Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan all have rival claims to Beijing's in the South China Sea and largely welcome a US presence in the face of China's militarisation of the waterway and its vast coastguard and fishing fleet.

Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia, said Washington was saying "all the right things on competition" with China but there were questions about how it could "translate words into actions and investments."

It was still unclear "what's it's going to look like in terms of our budget, in terms of our force posture, in terms of our investments in diplomacy and infrastructure, really putting meat on the bone," he said.

Austin's priority in the Philippines will be progress on renewing an agreement governing the presence of US troops there, which is of vital US strategic interest.

A deadline for the pact's expiration has been extended several times.

Analysts say Austin will need to strike a balance between stressing the China threat and making clear that Washington sees South-East Asia as more than just a military theatre.

"The emphasis from the region is yes, having the military around is good and welcome, but you need an economic strategy," the Asian diplomat said. - The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

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