[OUTLOOK]Lessons from a dying Korean heroA hero of the present era is lying in a hospital bed. The man is the “iron man” Park Tae-joon, 79, the former chairman of Posco and former prime minister. He had a serious operation five years ago, in July 2001. During the surgery, the left side of his torso was split open 33 centimeters (13 inches) and one of his ribs was cut. It took six and a half hours to get rid of a 3.2-kilogram (7-pound) growth that had been pressing on his lung for 30 years.
Mr. Park joked that the growth was a mixture of the sand at Yeongil Bay, Pohang, North Gyeongsang province, that he had inhaled while building Pohang Steel, the forerunner of Posco, and dust at Yeouido that he had inhaled while working in politics. Although he joked about the growth, he must have had that inside his body for too long a time. He had to have surgery once again on Aug. 17. The growth actually turned out to be a lump of silicon, which mainly occurs in minerals.
What defines a hero of an era? It is a person who resolves problems with means that are ahead of his time. Mr. Park grew big in his field, to the extent that even Japan feared him. The former Soviet Union respected him as a person who realized what an ideal community was. Mr. Park understood development and integration. The “Park Tae-joon spirit” is a perfect drive for Korea to break through its 10-year stagnation. That is the right spirit for South Korea in 2007.
Park Tae-joon pursued development constantly. In 1969, the Japanese Trade Ministry treated Mr. Park badly when he visited there to raise money to build an iron mill in Korea. The Japanese officials told him that to develop steel was an outrageous idea for a country whose people were starving to death. They told him he should think about rice instead. Mr. Park felt humiliated but did not show it. He knew pride did not help. He needed money and technology.
Finally, Pohang Steel was born. Within 30 years, the company became one of the world’s most competitive steel producers. The steel made there was rice for Korea’s industry and blood for Korea’s economy. Pohang Steel, coupled with the new Gyeongbu Expressway, which connects Seoul and Busan, rescued South Koreans from poverty.
Around that time, the Japanese steel industry started to fear the Korean steel company. An article in a Japanese daily, the Yomiuri Shimbun read, “Korea’s steel industry gained momentum with Japan’s help, but it has now invaded Japan’s markets.”
Mr. Park knows how to integrate people. He looks like a cold-hearted perfectionist who believes that only the strong survive. However, he is the exact opposite.
“Provide quality clothes, food, houses and a working environment before getting them to work.” That is Mr. Park’s theory of business and management. He believes that providing military goods should be considered before waging a war.
When he became a corps commander, the first thing he did was to get rid of fake ground pepper from the kitchen. When he built an iron mill, the first thing he did was borrow 2 billion won ($2.2 million) from a bank. With that money, he built a cozy apartment complex for his workers. This complex was once called a heaven on Earth. From the kindergartens to the Pohang University of Science and Technology, he has built 15 private education institutes with high standards in that area.
In 1991, when the former Soviet Union broke up, the dean of Moscow State University toured the apartment complex. He was stunned to see it and found the utopia of socialism, that his country failed to build. The dean confessed to Mr. Park, “Here, I saw the ideal place that comrade Marx and Lenin dreamed of.” As he spoke, his eyes welled up with tears.
The era of Mr. Park has passed. The eras of industrialization and democratization have passed. Ten years later, the era of stagnation has arrived. Development has halted. The country is full of hatred, even more so than under military rule. Hatred blocks integration and communication among people.
People are thirsty for development and integration. People have begun to realize that we still need to develop, although we have gotten out of poverty. Leadership in integration is much needed, after military rule and democratization.
In December 2007, citizens will try to find a candidate who will achieve development and integration. That’s what constituents want, due to the stagnation of the past 10 years. These two subjects will be the major issues for 2007. A candidate who can realize these values will likely be elected president. That is what the future candidates for president should learn from Mr. Park.
Mr. Park is now recuperating in Tampa, Florida. Here is his message to politicians. “Let people not forget the poverty and even the dictatorship that once shackled them.”
* The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chun Young-gi