[OUTLOOK]Becoming that which we hateKoreans often denounce Japanese people for their insularity. By this we mean that they exclude foreigners and foreign companies because they have been living on islands, isolated for so long. The Japanese themselves admit that they have this characteristic. There is a Korean saying that when you hate somebody, you eventually become like that person. That seems to be what is happening in Korea these days.
Geographically, South Korea is not much different from an island. It is a peninsula at the tip of a continent but the northern part of it has been blocked for many decades. South Korea has been isolated just like Japan. Probably because of this, South Koreans are sometimes even more exclusionist and unfriendly to the outside world.
We don’t even need to compare ourselves with the Japanese. However, we can’t see ourselves as open-minded to or cooperative with the outside world.
Two examples clearly illustrate our strong exclusionism.
First, the Daewon-gun, the regent of Joseon during the late 19th century, had a closed-door policy.
Second, Chinese migrants haven’t been able to gain strong power in Korea, unlike in many other countries.
South Korea has the world’s 11th-largest economy. But in terms of open-mindedness, where would it be placed? In this administration, the protest against opening our doors to the world has become even more aggressive.
Opening our markets is more desperately needed than ever in order to survive in international competition, but our political and social atmospheres are moving against this current.
Throughout history, we have almost always only opened our doors to the outer world because of outside forces. The extensive opening during the 1998 financial crisis was forced by outside powers. In the course of that opening, we made plenty of mistakes and paid an enormous cost.
However, we also avoided national bankruptcy thanks to that very opening. If we had opened our doors gradually beforehand, we wouldn’t have had to go through the humiliating process.
Nearly 10 years have passed since the financial crisis. Policies for opening markets further, however, are facing unfavorable winds, rather than having taken deep root.
Foreign funds, such as Sovereign, Newbridge and Lone Star, are regarded as “axes of evil”, regardless of their criminal liability.
Those who were responsible for the sales of Korean companies are facing trial. The prosecutors and auditors of South Korea are sharpening their blades to punish them.
Companies that work for the sales of unhealthy companies, once a popular business, are now treated as criminals. Law firms who have foreign companies as clients are regarded as treacherous groups.
Under these circumstances, signing a free trade agreement is unlikely to happen, whether with the United States or with Japan.
Any negotiations for an agreement can’t take place properly and even if they did we know what would come next ― politicians would turn them upside down overnight. Almost all politicians, regardless of their parties or ideologies, try to stir people’s hostility against foreign funds.
It is not only politicians, however. When politicians exaggerate one matter, the media hurriedly makes it a big issue in public. Nobody knows how civic, farmers’ or labor groups will react.
We don’t know what these people want. We just need to wait and see how things will turn out in the end. In former administrations, a president or someone else would have organized the whole procedure or brought an end to such chaos.
However, this doesn’t happen these days. When people have different opinions, they just busy themselves fighting with each other. No one tries to mediate between them.
Let’s look at Japan, the epitome of exclusionism.
Although their insularity has long been looked down upon, they know how to make a consensus among themselves. Japanese politicians often look as if they lack political competency because they make provocative remarks from time to time and can’t speak English. But they are the best in inducing agreement among their country’s citizens.
They make their insularity ― an inferior characteristic ― an enormous power from which to make a consensus.
Throughout history, Japan was forced to open its doors numerous times, but through those openings it has developed into one of the world’s largest economies.
Let’s look at how we are reacting now. Can we expect to reach an agreement? We should ask ourselves.
* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine.
by Lee Chang-kyu