On the Brink of Chaos or Creativity?The Daewoo Group is on the brink of dissipating and Hyundai Engineering and Construction is painfully drawing its last breath.
Watching the disintegration of these two conglomerates, once the driving engines of economic development, I cannot help feeling that it heralds the end of an era. I belatedly realize that we are at a watershed where the old economy, marked by can-do management philosophies and aggressive expansion is giving way to a new knowledge-based economy, but high-tech companies that should have been at the vanguard of creating a new order and management models for the information age rusted in less than a year since their lustrous beginning.
A new order has to be established amid the confusion of a crumbling old order, but the new order is slow in being born. The recent situation in Korea appears to be one of both old and new economic forces failing simultaneously and triggering anxiety.
Koreans are also experiencing ideological conflicts. Conserva-tives are resisting the administration''s North Korea policy that is proceeding too quickly and seems to benefit only the north. South Koreans hope for reconciliation, but they fear losing their southern identity in the rush to rapproachment. These are conflicts between liberals and conservatives, based on misgivings about being incorporated into a new order that includes the north. Similar conflicts are taking place between labor and management and doctors and pharmacists. Medical reforms, intended to improve an old-economy system, are instead floundering and generating conflict and confusion.
Labor unions, once strong supporters of President Kim Dae-jung, could turn their backs if the economic crisis leads to rising unemployment. Confusion and conflicts are created in the process of old and new forces grinding against each other to generate convulsive changes.
In a democratic society, a certain degree of confusion amidst a general sense of public order can heighten creative tension and actually help resolve conflicts between contending forces. American economist Lester Thurow cited two examples in his book "Building Wealth" － China and Russia.
Fifteenth century China was the world''s largest producer of steel. It invented advanced technologies including gunpowder, cannon, rudders, compasses, paper and printing. An industrial revolution did not take place, however.
Thurow attributes the failure to the sense of order thoroughly inbred into the Chinese. He maintains that pressure to maintain the status quo stifled creativity and adventurism because they might cause confusion.
Nineteenth century Russia saw creativity flourish amid confusion. It saw the rise of such literary luminaries as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, musicians and artists such as Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky and Kandinsky, and scientists such as Mendeleyev and Pavlov.
Russia provided vivid testimony that creativity thrives in confusion. But the confusion led to chaos and ultimately ended in the Russian revolution.
The lesson is that extreme confusion can lead to chaos.
From the 1960s under Park Chung-hee''s rule to the current administrations, Korean society did not deviate greatly from the order established under an economic-driven dictatorial regime.
Perhaps today''s crisis could be called a transitional period of confusion, with the old order collapsing slowly as a new one is established. But we treated warning signs like the 1997 economic collapse as a foreign exchange crisis and nothing more.
Making light of the warnings, we became accomplices to the crisis we face today. We cannot overcome the current crisis if we regard it merely as passing confusion caused by the liquidation of companies or labor conflicts. We must clearly perceive that we are standing in the midst of a storm of crisis and confusion generated by a conflict between old and new economic and social systems.
We must show grim determination to overcome this crisis, from which we might never escape if we do not make the efforts necessary to fix whatever must be fixed and to preserve what needs to be preserved in order to restore a creative social order. Unfortunately, the Kim administration seems to either misunderstand or underestimate the crisis.
More in Columns
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?