Seoul's mayor is asking voters to reject free lunches for all elementary and middle school students in a referendum Wednesday that has become a test of how far a resurgent South Korea should go in developing a welfare state.
As rising costs batter the U.S. and European governments, the $370-million-a-year proposal has sparked months of heated debate, giving a glimpse of Asia's fourth-largest economy at a crossroads. Having rebuilt after the Korean War and faced down a brutal financial crisis in the late 1990s, the nation is debating the role of government and how much it can afford in social programs.
Seoul already provides free lunch to 35 percent of elementary and middle school students, and the city parliament has approved raising that to 100 percent. A referendum is the only way for conservative Mayor Oh Se-hoon to reverse that decision. If he succeeds, the city would instead provide lunch for half of all students, including those in high school.
Oh has vowed to quit if voters go against him.
Supporters of the 100 percent free lunch program say it's needed to prevent schoolchildren from discriminating against one another because of family income levels. They argue it would improve unity at a time when the psychological division between haves and have-nots is widening.
The other side says only 50 percent of Seoul's schoolchildren should be fed using taxpayer money until the country is better off. They accuse liberals of pursuing welfare policies that could wreak havoc on the national budget, pointing to fiscal crises in Europe and Latin America.
Many South Koreans remain wary about government spending after the 1997 financial crisis, which led to massive layoffs and bankruptcies as the government sought emergency funds from the International Monetary Fund.
The debate is also a reminder of South Korea's success in fighting hunger as the country rose from the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War. Children once gorged on tap water at lunchtime because they didn't have enough food. Their descendants often sport smartphones and designer clothes.
Conservative President Lee Myung-bak has waded into the debate, casting an absentee vote last week. Though he hasn't said how he voted, he has repeatedly warned against "welfare populism" in speeches.
Oh, who is aligned with Lee, has bet his mayorship on the vote. He kneeled, bowed and shed tears in a nationally televised news conference Sunday as he appealed for a high turnout. If less than a third of Seoul's 8.4 million eligible voters go to the polls, the ballots won't be counted, and the parliament's decision to extend the program to all students below high school would stand.
Some economists say Oh and Lee are afraid of a potential surge in public demands for welfare programs.
"Conservatives fear the very word 'free' may spread," said Kang Seong-hoon, who teaches economics at Sungshin Women's University in Seoul.
Free lunch for all of the city's 810,000 elementary and middle school students would cost $370 million annually. The alternative _ feeding half of students at all levels including high school _ would cover 600,000 and cost $280 million, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
Playing down the difference between the price tags, Myongji University political scientist Shin Yul blamed Oh for excessive fiscal austerity when his city annually spends $20 billion.
However, mayoral spokesman Lee Jong-hyun said free lunch is a matter of principle.
"If the principle is violated, a dangerous logic of free rides will appear in other areas and threaten sustainable welfare," he said.
Some conservatives have described supporters of universal free lunch as leftists, a term often associated with North Korean sympathizers.
The debate is likely to play out in presidential and parliamentary elections next year.
Opponents risk being portrayed as cold-hearted for refusing to expand free lunch for students, but they may be solidifying their political base by signaling a conservative approach to welfare.
"Welfare and North Korea will be two major topics in next year's elections," said Kim Sung-joo, a political science professor at Seoul's Sungkyunkwan University. "The free lunch debate is raising welfare questions in voters' minds well ahead of elections."
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