[VIEWPOINT]Lessons to learn from Vietnam

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[VIEWPOINT]Lessons to learn from Vietnam

“Marry a Vietnamese girl.” These signs can be seen around Korea these days. A high-ranking paduk, or Japanese go, player recently married a Vietnamese woman, and his marriage became a hot issue. Yet I wish people were not allowed to put up such signs off the main roads. Let us think about how intellectuals from the country would feel if they came to our country and saw the signs. The signs are rude to Vietnamese people.
The signs are not only bad for the Vietnamese. I worry that Korean people will see the signs and make the foolish mistake of taking Vietnamese people lightly. Just a short time ago, it was the Vietnamese who didn’t think much of Koreans. Because of their great pride from fighting and winning against France and the United States, they looked down on Korea. If by any chance there is anyone who disregards Vietnam even nowadays, I would like to suggest that person go to Vietnam himself.
The first time I visited the country was in 1992. It was 17 years after the Hanoi administration unified Vietnam and opened its doors to the outside world and undertook market reforms.
Last month, I visited Vietnam again after 13 years to attend an economic forum sponsored by the JoongAng Ilbo. The country had changed so much that it looked like a different place. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have developed significantly with many international hotels, a newly built airport and office buildings in the heart of the city. In the industrial estates that were left empty, foreign investment companies are starting to settle in.
Despite such development, there were many voices of self-criticism and self-examination. There are good reasons for them to do so. Although the Vietnamese economy has kept growing at the rate of 7 percent annually, it could have grown at the rate of 10 percent if we consider the potential of Vietnam. Then, the gross domestic product of just $500 per person is a shameful figure. Should not it be more than $1,000 by now? The government is being reprimanded for having done nothing for the past 10 years. After all, it hasn’t even built a highway connecting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City yet.
Then, why couldn’t Vietnam gain more speed in the process of economic development? I could only take a hurried glance at the situation. However, I came to a conclusion after my second trip to the country that Vietnam is still in the process of unification. Even though 30 years has passed since the two parts of the country were unified, I could sense that the conflicts between the northern and the southern parts of the country were holding back chances for reform in all fields.
A professor of economics at Vietnam National University who attended the forum said with regret, “Right after unification, the government made a huge mistake. It confiscated the private property of the people of the south. As a result, the vitality of economic development was lost and the confrontation and gap between the two sides became even deeper.”
He confessed that the deep-rooted conflicts between the north and the south are still serious after 30 years. The capitalistic experience of one half did not play the role of leading the country in development, but ended up increasing retaliation and divide. Government policies were obviously discriminatory too.
Even when the government attracts foreign investment, investment projects in the south were made to have bad conditions while investments in the north had more favorable conditions. In order to develop the economically backward northern area, development of the south was practically closed off. In other words, by activating a Vietnam-style roadmap for balanced development of national territory, the country ended up achieving a downward equalization of the economy.
The reason why other countries pinned high hopes on Vietnam’s open door policy was because the south’s experience in capitalism would be a big help, but apparently things did not turn out that way for political reasons. Instead, it seems that the divide between the north and the south has hurt chances for reform by bringing up the issue of inequality and regional imbalance.
They say things have been making a turn recently. Perhaps people realized that things could not stay this way ― apparently there are definite signs that people are totally changing their attitudes. The government has also started to largely change conditions for foreign collaboration. Korean companies running businesses in Vietnam agree that Vietnamese labor is cheaper but its quality is better than that of China. Since they have already experienced the side effects of unification, now the variables on which Vietnam’s development depends are time and the people’s zeal for work. Vietnamese people say they should learn from Korea.
However, the hard-earned lesson of national unification, for which the Vietnamese paid such a high price, must be one that Korea should indeed learn from Vietnam. We have to think what will happen to the Korean economy, if one day both Koreas are unified suddenly.
People have often talked about the lessons of German unification so far, but when it comes to unification, shouldn’t we learn a good lesson also from Vietnam that achieved unification earlier than Germany? Let us look at Vietnam from various perspectives. There could be more we can learn from the country.

* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Chang-kyu
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