[OUTLOOK]Politicians must support businessJohn Naisbitt, the world’s leading futurist, recently held a lecture in Korea, in which he said that when he visited Korea 40 years ago, in 1967, the national per capita income was merely $140. Now it is $16,000. These figures show how much our economy has achieved in the past 40 years.
Yesterday, there was a ceremony to promote exports. By around Dec. 5, the volume of Korea’s exports is estimated to exceed $300 billion. Our exports surpassed $100 million in 1964 and reached $10 billion in 1977. Our economy has grown 100-fold within 40 years. That explosive growth was driven by exports that have grown thousands of times during the same period.
Let’s go back in time and see what happened in 1967. On April 11 of that year, Korea acceded to a general agreement on tariffs and trade. Our country was still a barren place when it came to industry, but took the first step toward opening its markets. To open doors to the outside world is always a very hard decision to make. But if we keep the doors closed, we lose the right to join a massive international market.
My generation still remembers vividly what happened since then. Our country used to export tungsten and porcelain clay to earn dollars. Then it started to sell plywood and wigs and then shoes and garments. It later started to produce ships, cars, semiconductors and communications units, expanding toward international markets. A chronic deficit in the trade balance turned to a surplus in 1986.
The cover story of the Nov. 27 issue of Nikkei Business has a headline that reads “Japan, the second-best country in electronics.” The article severely criticizes the failure of Japan’s electronics industry. It says that Japan is no longer the leading country in semiconductors. For designing circuits, it can not compete with the United States and European countries. For mass production, it lies behind Korea and Taiwan. Of course, Japan’s electronics are still very competitive, so the article focused on self-examination through criticism. However, it shows how much Korea’s electronics have grown.
The other day, the Institute for Industrial Policy Studies published research that Korea’s brand value is among the world’s top 10. How did foreign investors evaluate our country that well when there is the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and criticism about excessive regulations and militant labor unions? I am certain it was thanks to businesses that do well abroad.
The brand value of Samsung is higher than that of Sony, according to the top 100 global brands of 2006 listed by Business Week and Interbrand. Hyundai Motor Company and LG were on that list as well. Our shipbuilding and steel are very competitive in international markets, although they are not as commonly known to the public as other sectors. People may have gotten used to this by now. But even 10 years ago, these brands were hard to spot on the international stage.
Thanks to these competitive companies, our country’s exports have grown by more than 10 percent, despite disadvantages such as the strong won and high oil prices. Thanks to these companies, our economy was able to stay afloat when domestic sales were very low. When going abroad, I feel proud to spot products made in Korea in a variety of places, from airports and streets to top-class department stores. But when I return home, I feel things are different. Many consider companies as close to public organizations and view businessmen as evil men who take advantage of workers. The administration has failed to present a simple incentive of abandoning regulations on the total amount of business investment. It also does not try hard to make the best use of a metropolitan area that is internationally competitive.
With a presidential election nearing, politicians always want businesses’ money behind the scenes but in public make anti-business remarks to attract votes. If that happens again next year, our economy will fall apart. Instead, such hypocrisy should be stopped and our companies should keep working hard.
Mr. Naisbitt finished his lecture by saying the future of Korea depends solely on how Koreans do, but that future is bright, as it has developed so far without depending on other forces. But we should remember his warning as well: The government should help people committed to their work. If freedom of economic activities is constantly limited, his optimism might change.
*The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Tae-wook