[OUTLOOK]Money influences views of Korea

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[OUTLOOK]Money influences views of Korea

I visited China over the Lunar New Year holiday, sharing a direct flight from Incheon to Qingdao with group tours.
Qingdao’s airport is as well built and as big as Incheon’s airport. China is expanding its infrastructure in every city in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Tourist resorts are filled with new skyscraping hotels and shopping centers. Compared to a few years ago, roads have become broader and toilets have become cleaner. Korean travel agencies’ banners and families of tourists can be seen at every famous site.
Because prices in China are relatively low, we can feel the power of the Korean won there. At souvenir shops, salesmen shouted out, “One thousand Korean won, just 1,000!” With 1,000 won ($0.97), you can buy a hat, a walking stick and two pineapples.
Ten thousand won is a large amount of money in China. With 10,000 won you can buy a big doll or a good-quality scarf. Chinese salespeople follow Korean tourists in hopes of selling something to them, repeating “cheap, cheap” in Korean.
It made me feel rather strange. In Korea’s long history with China, was there ever a time when Korean people were treated so well by the Chinese as they are now? It made me realize how important it is for a country to have economic power.
I recalled the situation we were in just 30 years ago. I first visited Europe at the end of the 1970s, and back then there were very few Koreans living there outside of those working at overseas branches of Korean trading companies. Now and then I would run into someone who came to West Germany as a miner or a nurse and then settled down there.
I was so happy to see them. Korean people back then went overseas as miners because they could not get a job even after graduating from college with a degree. The same went for nurses. They took all kinds of hard and difficult jobs in Europe as the Korean-Chinese and Southeast Asian migrant workers do in Korea now.
It is said that the late President Park Chung Hee cried with the Korean miners and nurses at a Korean residents’ gathering when he visited West Germany. The tears shed were probably tears of sorrow and welcome. We were so poor at that time that the president flew on a commercial flight and usually went overseas to get a loan or ask for economic aid.
When I went to Europe, miners and nurses were just starting to get settled in Germany or going to the United States in search of new jobs. Even though they led a difficult life, they worried about their home country and remitted money to their families.
I moved on to the Middle East from Europe. There was a construction boom in the Middle East at that time, so the plane was filled with Korean workers with tanned faces and rough hands. I landed at Bahrain airport with those workers and saw them at a loss for what to do with immigration papers written in English. I remember filling up more than 10 immigration papers for them and rushing to get off the plane. I felt tears welling up as I held their calloused hands and told them to make a lot of money as they bid me farewell.
The Middle East is hot, with temperatures surpassing 40 degrees centigrade. Locals only work when there is some shade and finish when the sun sets. However, Korean workers worked all day, eating a rushed lunch and lighting a torch to work at night. They wanted to make more money even if it meant overtime.
As a result, they were most welcome in the Middle Eastern countries for their hard work, which shortened construction periods. The people I saw back then are probably in their 60s now. They might have not known it then, but their long hours under the scorching sun probably led to side effects that appear with age.
Today, Koreans can talk about their painful experiences of the past with a smile and travel overseas as tourists with money to spend. Now that Koreans do not have many financial problems, it is having an effect on Korean descendants living in China. Because there are many Korean factories in China and Korean tourists, the popularity of Korean-Chinese who speak Korean is growing.
Korean-Chinese lived mainly in the three Northeastern provinces of China near Manchuria. They have gradually moved down to the south, and they now live in areas stretching to Shanghai, Qingdao and even Kunming and Hainan.
A Korean-Chinese guide said with conten that the Chinese envy Korean guides who speak Korean because they get paid more. The mainstream Chinese have started to envy the minority Korean-Chinese in the last few years. What a historical phenomenon. One thing the Korean-Chinese guides never fail to comment on during the tours is that they are so pleased that Korea is doing well economically. The guides said China was also putting efforts into developing its economy in earnest now. They said active economic development started with Deng Xiaoping, who probably learned a lot from President Park Chung Hee.
Our guide said that the Korean guides earn more money and live well thanks to Korea’s economic development. He had heard the Korean economy was not doing so well nowadays and asked if things were okay. It sounded as if he were worried that his high income and hospitable treatment by the Chinese would disappear.

* The writer is the vice chairman of the Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI). Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Woo-suk
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