Wrapping Up the Year 2000

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Wrapping Up the Year 2000

A depressing year is coming to an end. In terms of the Korean economy, 2000 was the year that we would like to erase from our memory. The hope of coming out of the tunnel of the foreign exchange crisis has been shattered and for many people the dream of getting rich on the stock market has driven them to squander a huge amount of money.

Companies have lost vitality, workers have been driven to the streets and the general public is anxious. The government admits that its public vow of concluding corporate and financial restructuring before the end of this year has proven impossible. Confidence has plummeted and systems are paralyzed. To make matters worse, external conditions have deteriorated, which gives rise to dim forecasts: next year''s economy will deteriorate to hit rock bottom.

The primary responsibility for these painful results rests with the government''s lack of vision, conviction and measures. The government made the mistake of popping the Champagne bottle prematurely. Although it called on four major sectors to reform, it had no blueprint or concrete programs ready. The government also lacked consistency and objective standards, nor did it adhere to principles. Pressed with time, officials kept changing their words. The promise of no additional formation of public funds gave way to the creation of 40 trillion won ($33 billion), while the lack of principles demonstrated during the liquidation of ailing companies and the handling of Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co. is enough to cast aspersions on the government''s will for reform. The response to the strikes by public firms and banks was close to that of a hapless bystander. This has led to chaos in the financial market along with the rumor that another economic crisis is looming. To make matters worse, politicians have been preoccupied with the grabbing of their shares and relied on populism, while some in the labor sector busied themselves instigating strikes.

It will not do if things continue this way. A dramatic turnaround should be found for the Korean economy to rise again. There is only one answer to this conundrum: the public and the government must join forces to strike a united front. What is most urgent is to bring back trust to the public. In the current situation where cynicism is prevalent, however remarkable a policy, it is destined to become futile. The government must concentrate on recovering public confidence by promoting corporate and financial reforms according to principles and with consistency. The people, for their part, should realize that cynicism and mistrust only lead to their own suffering. We urge them to bring back the spirit of cooperation they showed when they collected gold to help pay foreign debts in early 1998.

In the midst of darkness, we see some hopeful signs. The financial strikes are practically over, and the labor sector''s "winter struggle," a great worry for the Korean economy, has averted the worst-case scenario thanks to workers'' concessions and the government''s efforts.

The two sides should rise to the occasion to establish a new labor-management relationship and introduce much-needed reform to the labor sector. For reforms in corporate, banking and labor circles to gain momentum, public-sector reform should be pushed with more intensity. Fortunately, the Grand National Party president, Lee Hoi-chang, has put forth the argument of bipartisan cooperation to tackle the economic crisis. The ruling party and the opposition must stop political squabbling and join forces to revive the economy. Time is running out.

by Lee Chul-seung

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