[OUTLOOK]Going to hell in a handbasketAt about lunch time, a long line of people comes in sight when you walk down from Mount Namsan toward Seoul Station. The queue is for a free lunch. The line has grown longer than ever, which means that more people are driven to the edge of livelihood without having a meal a day. Around subway stations with lots of floating population, including Apgujeong and Gyodae stations, a game of “hide-and-seek” between street vendors and patrolmen goes on all day.
Due to the seemingly endless recession, the number of street vendors trying to earn money is rising sharply. Moreover, the number of young vendors has also increased remarkably, as if reflecting the seriousness of youth unemployment. Competition for places has become fiercer among the vendors. Of course, the world has become harder to live in.
The streets of Chungmu-ro and Eulgi-ro where publishers and printing press used to be busy printing calendars all night due to heavy demand about this time of the year are desolate. Businesses have reduced or cancelled altogether their orders for calendars for next year because of the economic slowdown. So, publishers in Chungmu-ro and Eulgi-ro are ready to cry.
Food businesses are even worse off. In a word, they feel “bitter.” A roll of rice wrapped in seaweed is 1,000 won (90 cents). The price cannot cover the cost of the ingredients, but they cannot help underpricing it. Over 80 percent of restaurants are in the red or are barely breaking even. Restaurant closings have become an epidemic. During this year, more than 200,000 restaurants suspended their operations or shut down. The situation is even more serious than during the foreign exchange crisis of 1997.
What is worse, these restaurants that are closing down now are largely small ones that had been opened with tearful severance money for “honorable retirement” during the financial crisis. How severe their hardship must have been to stage a demonstration, throwing away their pots and pans that they need for their livelihood. Their demonstration with pots clearly proves that the last battle line of the economy for making a living has already collapsed.
Amid this turmoil, President Roh Moo-hyun appeared on a radio program to say that he would directly listen to the sorrows of the common people. But if he really wants to know how the world goes now, he should take off his suit and tie, and, braced for criticism, go see the market, go see subway stations, go see restaurants on the streets, go and directly see empty markets without customers, directly face the bloodshot eyes of street vendors who “play hide-and-seek” with the police, struggling to survive. Stay in the empty restaurant for hours and count the number of customers and think whether this is a reasonable state and whether the people can make their living in this situation. Why should Mr. Roh worry? It is said that he is saving all of his salary even in these difficult times.
On the radio program, the president said that nobody can know his future; he himself grew up in poor circumstances. True. Nobody can know his or her fate. But it was irresponsible indeed for the president to tell a parent who had only 4,000 won in her wallet and couldn’t buy a cake for her child on his first birthday that everything would go well when their fate turned for the better.
The president compared himself to the personnel staff in the army who carry stragglers on a march in an ambulance. But these days do not constitute a situation where soldiers fall behind during a march, but where the entire army is about to die. It is not a state to wonder whether to carry people in an ambulance or not.
In this confusion, there is talk about a “New Deal” all of a sudden. The “New Deal policy” existed a long time ago and I don’t know why such a policy is talked about in this situation. Furthermore, the policy is reportedly to be financed from pension funds, including the national pension. What little remains in that fund currently is about to be lost completely. With Mr. Roh’s ability to run Jangsucheon, his former bankrupt bottled water company, how can he run the economy for the country? He is far from competent to do so.
I thought it a little fishy for the prime minister to directly confront the opposition party in the National Assembly and sure enough, the self-important politicians are already preparing for the next presidential election. The governing and opposition parties have already entered a phase of the presidential campaign in their own ways. Whatever the people might do for a living, they are only concerned about their own interests.
Probably disillusioned with the deep economic recession and our divided and corrupt society, a growing number of people are leaving their families to enter the priesthood. More people are doing so than during the International Monetary Fund’s stewardship. In particular, people in their forties account for the largest number of those who enter the priesthood. The backbone of our society is breaking.
The Bank of Japan officially announced some time ago, “A decade of deflation is over.” While Japan says its 10-year deflation is over, ours is just the beginning. Among recent popular commercial ads, one says, “Dad, cheer up! ‘Cause we are here.” Thanks to the cheers of precocious children, we manage to muster some energy.
Still, the world is swaying under the sharp blade of cold wind. What with this and that, all the people feel desperate.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chung Jin-hong