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[Viewpoint]Harnessing energy, Korea’s future

We should set out to build a Korean economy based on the environment and energy.

June 12,2008
We can certainly empathize with the desire of young Koreans to actively participate in the political process and address the serious problems resulting from profound changes in the global economy. Nevertheless, there is a danger that the Koreans who filled the streets with their protests against the import of American beef are being distracted from a far more serious threat to Korea’s well-being. Let us urge concerned Koreans to focus their energy on the problem of Korea’s economic survival in an age of high energy costs.

Korea, a nation without natural resources whose economy is built around exports, will find it far hard to compete if oil reaches $200 a barrel. Moreover, Korea’s logistics system, and much of its public transportation, is based on the American model: highways and automobile transportation are at the center while regional trains and energy efficient buses are almost non-existent. We are witnessing just the first signs of a serious dislocation in Korean society that will increase with the cost of petroleum.

The first step towards resolving a crisis is to recognize it, and to focus on it. Koreans should gather together to think about how we will deal with that potentially explosive situation and its implication for our future. We know that Koreans are capable of rallying around a cause and giving it their all. Korea, and the whole world, will need all the enthusiasm, all the creativity and all the sincerity of Korea’s youth in this effort.

The Korean government needs their help. So far, the Korean government has responded to this crisis by offering tax rebates for workers and small businesses. The investment in alternative energy is much smaller and as far as I know, nothing has been allocated for mass transportation. I have not met a single Korean who thinks this response will have any impact on the looming crisis.

We need to think large-scale and we have to act quickly. We also must work together with government, because only government will be capable of coordinating the complex and massive shifts that must take place in the Korean economy.

First, we will have to redesign the cities of Korea. All housing must be fully insulated for energy efficiency. Rational city planning must be implemented so as to minimize the distance traveled from home to work. Logically, light-rail vehicle transportation must be provided and a network of bicycle paths must spread through every city. We must form global research alliances to produce high-efficiency batteries, engines and solar cells as quickly as possible. Korea can lead the way. Equally important, the culture of endless consumption among children must be modified so that the values of Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, when it grew the fastest economically, can be relearned.

So also, we will have to slowly but methodically remake the Korean economy to correspond to Korea’s domestic needs and the new global economy. Those parts of the economy that make automobiles can be retooled to not only make high energy-efficient automobiles, but also to build windmills, watermills and solar power devices.

Such a task seems so massive as to be impossible, but we must remember that although Korea is No. 1 in the world in shipbuilding today, back in the 1970s when a small number of people in Korea decided to make it a strategic industry, Korea was not competitive at all.

The issue is setting a goal and focusing all resources on that goal.

If you speak to anyone in Silicon Valley today, they will tell you that environmental technologies and energy related industries are the hottest new markets.

There is a potential market for the technologies for generating and consuming energy cleanly and efficiently from wind, sun and biomass, which Korea will have to enter seriously if it wants to survive. That market stretches from China to Southeast Asia, from Central Asia to India. If Koreans put their minds to it, they can use the skills they already have to become more energy-independent and thereby competitive in this rapidly growing market.

Korea should be more focused than any other country on alternative energy and the environment, because it has the most to lose. Let us hope that the young people protesting about beef today can direct that energy towards this problem now. The theme of the 1960s in Korea was “building a nation through science.” It was a smart strategy that made Korea an advanced nation in a short period of time. We should now set out to build a Korean economy based on the environment and energy.

*The writer is the director of the Asia Institute at Woosong University’s SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon.

by Emanuel Yi Pastreich



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