[FOUNTAIN]Bad omens from a bird in a cage

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[FOUNTAIN]Bad omens from a bird in a cage

The canary is one of man’s oldest pet birds. Native to the Canary Islands northwest of Africa, the bird was introduced to Europe in the 16th century. Selective breeding in the past two centuries has resulted in canaries of a variety of colors and sizes.
To keep a canary healthy, you have to make sure the air is clean, because they are very sensitive to air pollution. In the 19th century, European and American miners used this trait to protect themselves against poisonous gases that might be colorless and odorless. A caged canary was kept in the mine; if it stopped its song and fell from the perch, the miners knew it had been poisoned, and they evacuated the mine. Hence the expression “like a canary in a coal mine,” referring to a person or event that warns of a danger that cannot otherwise be easily detected.
Venerable Hyon Gak, author of the bestselling autobiography “From Harvard to Hwagyesa,” wrote in an essay that Korea’s “canary in the coal mine” was suicide. He was concerned that the number of suicides was larger than the number of traffic fatalities. No matter what the reasons for the suicides might be, such a large number is certainly an indicator of an unhealthy society.
Last year, suicide was the number one cause of death among people in their 20s and 30s. Twenty-one percent of the suicides were in their 40s. The youngsters in their 20s and 30s had lost hope and given up their lives at a time when they were supposed to be filled with rosy passion and excitement. At the pivotal point of midlife, people in their 40s had found themselves unable to overcome harsh reality.
Recently, more talk of Korea and canaries came from the United States. Stephen Roach, Morgan Stanley’s chief economist, called Korea the canary in the coal mine of the global economy. He wrote that Korea’s economic indicators were awful, and the shambling of our economy could be an “early warning sign of what lies ahead for an increasingly vulnerable Asian economy and an increasingly unbalanced global economy.” Korea’s economy is vulnerable to the changes in the economic environment, and would be first to stumble. It might not be easy to swallow, but we cannot refute Mr. Roach’s gloomy forecast. After all, it is our fault that the canary that is Korea is dying.

by Lee Se-jung

The writer is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
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