[VIEWPOINT]Back to Chinese character basicsBuilding an East Asian business center in Korea has become a significant issue.
Korea, China and Japan are a potentially huge economic union, one that would account for 25 percent of the world's population and 20 percent of the global economy.
If Korea were a regional business center, it would be a lucrative business for us; there would be more foreign direct investment and more jobs flowing into the country.
The present economic hubs in the region, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, are all doing their best to hold on to what they have. But it is a difficult thing to be center stage with the spotlight shining on you. Countries with such aspirations have to be able to put those aspirations into effect.
Perhaps developed European countries such as Finland, the Netherlands and Switzerland could be the role models for developing a business hub here. Those small nations have had their share of geopolitical difficulties because of the strong nations on their borders.
Finland, on the Baltic Sea, has had to contend with Sweden and more recently the former Soviet Union over the course of its painful history.
The Netherlands, which has often been a region fought over by Germany, France, Spain and England, has also had some dark times in its history.
Switzerland's mountainous borders have often attracted the attention of the bullies on its doorstep, and the country has little in the way of natural resources of its own.
These small but now powerful nations were able to advance their national interests after making enormous efforts to stand on their own two feet. They have learned how to see correctly what their neighbors' interests are and take the appropriate steps to find mutual interests and to protect themselves from danger.
To understand your neighbor, you have to know how to speak his language.
People from the Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland usually speak two or three foreign languages. In Holland, even taxi drivers can make themselves understood in German, French and English. Switzerland, one of the richest countries in the world, has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh.
That suggests what steps Korea, which is located between two powerful neighbors, Japan and China, should do to make itself an East Asian business hub.
We must return to the study of hanja, Chinese characters, which will allow us to communicate with Chinese, Japanese and Chinese emigrants in South East Asia.
Even though 70 percent of the Korean vocabulary originates from Chinese characters, few Koreans know how to read or write the characters for those words.
Perversely, the introduction of computers and their easy accessibility has made it even harder to encourage the study of Chinese characters, which are most easily learned by rote calligraphy.
Some college graduates cannot even read the Chinese characters in Korean newspapers and others are not able to write their own names in Chinese characters.
A local newspaper recently reported that a student at a prestigious Korean university could not identify 140 Chinese characters out of 200 characters in a test -- he left the answers blank. Neither was he able to correctly identify all the 60 characters that he did write down an answer for.
Chinese characters are the best means to communicate with many other Asians, so it is never too late to educate our young students in Chinese characters.
Korea has close relationships with China and Japan. A third of our nation's exports and imports come from those two countries.
One out of every two people visiting the peninsula is either Chinese or Japanese.
Half of Koreans who go abroad for either business or tourism are bound for those two countries.
Korea, situated in a strategically central position among East Asian countries, should deepen its understanding of the cultures of neighboring countries by promoting education in Chinese characters.
Korea can expand its trade and interchange with China and Japan, and that would help make Korea a business center for the region.
by Park Yong-sung
* The writer is chairman of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
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