[OUTLOOK]Parallels to the south and westThe leaders of the 21 nations who attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Busan lived in a manner befitting their national power. While many leaders arrived in presidential planes accompanied by a large group of aides and secretaries, there were others who arrived on commercial flights alongside general travelers. There were leaders who stayed in lavish suites and deluxe rooms, and others who stayed in ordinary rooms.
As is the rule of thumb at meetings of chiefs of state, the national leaders receive attention and a welcome commensurate with their nation’s power. A leader cannot expect his or her voice to be heard if it’s not backed up by national power. In the 1960s, South Korean leaders on overseas trips flew on commercial flights. Back then, they often traveled to seek foreign aid and investment. Now, the South Korean leader can afford to fly on his presidential plane to attend the next APEC summit in Vietnam, and stay in a hotel suite. He might even have to pledge foreign aid to the host country.
The leader of the Philippines, which in the early 1960s was a leading country in Asia and one where many South Koreans headed to learn their way of doing things, flew into the Busan APEC summit quietly on a commercial flight. But in the early 1960s, the Philippines had a gross domestic product per capita of $180, while that of South Korea was $100. Forty years on, South Korea’s per capita gross domestic product has surged to $14,000; that of the Philippines stands at slightly over $1,000. So many of its women with university diplomas come to South Korea to work as housemaids and nurses. The Philippine government, I am sure, did its best to improve its national power and the quality of life for its people. but for whatever reason ― bad strategy or allocations of national energy ― the result has been less than favorable.
The two countries, South Korea and the Philippines, have many common traits. They both depended heavily on the United States, and both experienced tyrannies. The Philippines and its “People Power” achieved a peaceful transition of power to a full-fledged democracy earlier than South Korea, but recently has seen many changes, including the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the election of a bizarre president. In the past four decades, while the South Korean economy grew at an annual average rate of 7.5 percent, the Philippine economy grew a meager 3.8 percent. These differences, accumulated over the years, have produced the present-day gulf between the two countries.
Coincidentally, comparisons of South Korea and China are similar. South Korea’s economic growth for this year is expected at 3.8 percent while that of China is slightly over 9 percent. Visit China these days and there is no escaping that heat of growth. It is as if China is charging full-steam ahead to make up for its lost decades since the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s.
The performance of the South Korean economy has lagged since civilian governments came into power. Could it be that the civilian governments, however democratic, were lax in attending to the economy? But there are voices in South Korea complacently saying that maybe we should take things easy even though we are channeling our energy into a strange agenda. In this process, South Korean growth engines have lost steam.
Visit China and the won buys a lot. Pay about 20,000 won ($19), and you can get an hour-long foot massage in nice surroundings. Whenever I treat myself to a massage in China, I recall that this was a luxury I could not have afforded in the past. It’s a luxury that’s made possible by the South Korean people’s efforts in the past four decades or so.
Ostensibly, if we look at the statistics, there is a considerable gulf between China and South Korea. China’s gross domestic product per capita is only about $1,300. But if we consider the real value and the purchasing power of the Chinese currency, the yuan, the gulf is much less. And should the trends in economic growth rates persist, who can say with confidence that South Korea will not follow in the steps of the Philippines? It’s possible that within this century or within one generation, our daughters will be going to China to work as maids or nurses. Or foot masseuses.
It’s a sad and wretched thing to imagine that as our children’s future. What can be more important than preventing such a future? But no one here seems to be aware of the possibility.
* The writer is the deputy chairman of the Samsung Economic Research Institute. Translation by the JoongAng Daily Staff.
by Choi Woo-sock