[GLOBAL EYE]A cloudy 2004 outlook for KoreaThe meteorological map for 2004 is as cloudy as the thick fog right after sunrise. It is not only because the stink of slush fund scandals and the mud slinging in the political arena will overflow into this year, but because we lead tiresome lives and we cannot see any vision or strategy for the future in the prelude to another lousy year.
The advancement of information technology and the globalization of production and consumption have made our lifestyle appear fancier on the surface, but irregular employment and ubiquitous outsourcing have made individual lives unstable.
The social safety net is unreliable, and employers, who used to treat employees like their children, now consider them consumption items.
The manufacturing sector, which must lead the job creation efforts, has taken a nosedive, and 38 percent of the small and mid-sized factories have relocated to China. The service industry based on information and knowledge has failed to fill in the gap, and even the entertainment industry is suffering from the slump.
Hospitals, restaurants and taxi drivers report fewer customers. To the public, the current economic slump feels more severe than the shockwaves from the financial crisis in 1997.
Of course, the Roh Moo-hyun administration is not solely responsible for the fiasco. We have covered up the economy’s structural problems with stopgap measures, and the wounds are festering. Exports are in good shape, but their impact as a growth engine is limited unless bolstered by domestic consumption.
The government and politicians speak out on their determination to revive the economy and public welfare, but there hasn’t been a specific program or a political consensus. Their hearts and minds are focused on the upcoming National Assembly elections.
How will Korea support itself, secure its place in the international community and resolve the social feuds to achieve national unity?
How can we explain that a country that makes a living from trade has not yet completed a single free trade agreement? Globalization and sovereignty are often compared to driving on a highway.
The car’s direction is up to the driver, or national sovereignty. But once you get on the highway, you have to deal with external factors, such as traffic regulations and the movement of other cars. When stuck in a traffic jam, you cannot drive on the shoulder to get ahead.
In order to enhance competitiveness and create more jobs, opening the information-driven service fields, such as medicine, education and legal services, is inevitable. But we haven’t seen any national effort for the public welfare beyond the simple appeasement of interest groups.
Major foreign policy decisions have been handled with temporary solutions, and the lack of focus has blurred the nation’s diplomatic direction and damaged its confidence.
When regional players such as Japan and China have already secured their interest in the order created by American hegemony, it would be a dangerous gamble to advocate diplomacy of self-reliance in order to fulfill an internal political goal.
When it has become a reality that the international order is kept by an “invisible fist,” foreign policy cannot be swayed by the theory of moral justice or public opinion.
The generation gap is no longer a social threat. The insecurity of individual lives has become a crisis for every generation, and 80 percent of the wealth is concentrated in the top 20 percent of the population. How can we prevent a further division of rich and poor?
Overheated competition among undistinguished candidates, and unnecessary election campaigns only make the public tired. In April’s National Assembly election, politicians should be judged by their understanding of reality, their solutions to the problems and their will to implement reforms.
* The writer is the chief editor of the Monthly NEXT.
by Byun Sang-keun