[VIEWPOINT]Overcoming adolescenceKorean and Chinese economic specialists attended a seminar hosted by Joongang Ilbo at the end of August to discuss the economic development of the two nations. Pi Shenghao’s comment on the Korean economy created quite a stir. He began gently, mentioning the “miracle on the Han River.” Then he said, “The Korean economy is like a high school student who failed a college entrance exam.”
That was a shock; I felt like my innermost shameful secret had been revealed. His portrayal encapsulated Korea’s problem. The Korean economy was driven by vanity to become an OECD member, behaved frivolously and ended up falling into a financial crisis. Korea may still be an adolescent boy with megalomania, pretending to be a college student. China has a lower per-capita national income than Korea, but even the developed countries fear its overwhelming size and potential for rapid growth.
I replied, “Korea might be an adolescent high school student with megalomania, but China seems like a middle school student who weighs 100 kilograms (220 pounds) that college students cannot meddle with.”
The Chinese scholars may have felt offended by my comment, and responded with a straight face, “Culturally, China is a college student and Korea is a middle school student.” I thought that the analogy was unfair since culture, unlike economy, cannot be measured objectively. But I did not pursue the debate further to prevent more awkward moments. After all, thinking about the future of Korea was the priority.
Soon thereafter, I read a newspaper article about our president’s interview with a television network. He said that Korea would have the kind of capacity on par with the United States in the international community in five to ten years, and this year’s growth rate of the economy would top the charts among OECD members. I was reminded again of a “high school student who failed a college entrance exam” and “an adolescent boy with megalomania.”
A high school boy in his adolescent years wants to grow up fast and pretends to be an adult. He can wear grown-up clothes, smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol without being reproved for his behavior. He might get the idea that he has already become an adult. He might stop studying, enjoy life and adopt lavish spending habits. The consumption of cigarettes and alcohol has slowed down his growth, but he would compare his development with that of a college student and feel satisfied that he is growing the fastest.
Adolescence is a turbulent time. As long as the rebellious period is not too long and does not cause a lasting problem, the experience can help a teen-ager eventually grow more mature. Our per-capita national income has been hovering around $10,000 for seven or eight years and the corporate environment might be confined in a spider’s web of restrictions, but as long as the frame of the market economy and liberal democracy remains intact, we can concentrate our energy on development again.
But the situation seems more complex than that. If we are not just meandering around but have taken the wrong path, we have a serious problem. We have been helping a vagabond dropout, and more recently, we have been trying to convert the structure of the house to let him hang out freely. Helping a vagrant is one thing, but taking him into our home is another. We are not yet mature enough to support another teen-ager. When the threat to the system exists, economic development is hard to attain and democracy cannot be guaranteed.
In the last five decades, we Koreans astonished the world with our rapid economic development without much in the way of natural resources and amid a security threat. We have a painful past, but our political liberty has greatly improved. For the first time in five millennia, Korea has finally become powerful enough to speak up to China during the last two decades. Aren’t we responsible for passing the nation as it is along to the next generation? Thanks to its massive size, China is growing at a fearful rate. Japan has also gotten out of its slump and wants to maintain hegemony over Northeast Asia. It’s no time to be infatuated by megalomania and waste our time and energy.
* The writer is a professor of economics at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Nam Sung-il