Wise Belgium Offers Us a Good LessonPeople who have traveled in Belgium wonder what makes this small European nation so prosperous. The country is small, lacks natural resources and has no world-class industrial companies. So how come Belgians enjoy such a high standard of living?
First of all, Belgians have commercial and trading institutions that have been refined over the centuries. Guilds, which are various merchant associations, are located as they have been for centuries around the square in front of City Hall in the capital, Brussels.
In the 17th century, the city was renowned for its beauty and wealth. Louis XIV of France was so envious of Brussels that he once ordered the city razed.
Belgium has long served as the center of commercial activity in Europe, with strict rules of competition regulating the business affairs of the merchants. When a merchant settled on a price with a foreign buyer, other merchants never intervened with a lower offer. They knew that the price would be driven lower and lower, and in the end all would fail together.
In Korea, commercial practices are far different, despite the lesson that Belgium teaches. When I expressed this view, a Belgian tour guide smiled wryly. "It took a thousands years for us to understand the wisdom," he said.
Then again, there is no reason to be disappointed. I rather felt relieved. In Korea, a foreign buyer who wished to buy ginseng failed to make his purchase because every Korean merchant he met offered lower and lower prices.
The buyer doubted the quality of ginseng because he could trust neither the extremely low price nor the quality of the product. This is how Koreans do business.
How long should we Koreans wait to learn what took the Belgians one thousand years to understand, namely that it is better to live together than to fail together. On the other hand, should Koreans be amazed to have reached the current level of prosperity although it has been less than 100 years since we started full-scale trading with foreign countries?
At a glance, cities in Belgium are similar to cities in Korea, but specific differences are tremendous. I admired their wisdom after seeing the narrow roads of Brussels. The spirit of cooperation and compromise is deeply rooted in the residents'' every day lives.
In Brussels, pedestrian paths, bicycle lanes, parking lots, bus lanes, streetcar lines and median strips with gardens can be found on the many narrow two-lane roads. Buses and streetcars cannot run on many roads at the same time. They have to alternate use of the roadways and yield to one another when meeting. Brussels traffic flows with little congestion, more evidence of the wisdom Belgians have learned.
These qualities of Belgian life led NATO and the European Union to locate their headquarters in Brussels. Those decisions have resulted in raising the city''s reputation as well as having positive effects other country''s politics and economy. Therefore, the leading countries in Europe competed fiercely to attract NATO and the EU, but it was Belgium that prevailed.
This is the power of Belgium. The country always avoids any reckless showdown. It participates in competition but never confronts. Based on the principle of co-existence, Belgians have learned a lesson that they would fail when involved in a rash confrontation.
With a history of endurance and acceptance of differing nationalities, even invaders, Belgium has brought honor and prosperity to itself. Where it was once weak, Belgium wisely realized the logic of survival and has become strong.
Although Belgium is similar to Korea in many aspects, we have a long way to go in developing a strategy to overcome weaknesses in Korea and to make use our people in the best possible way.
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