[Viewpoint]We are not just animals

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[Viewpoint]We are not just animals

The Japanese were once known as economic animals for their money-oriented attitude. Japan experienced rapid economic development, but its people hated the moniker. Recently, a new interpretation of the phrase came out: as a compliment.
Here is how the story goes: The first person to use the phrase was the former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto. She complimented the economic talent of the Japanese, just as people called former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill a “political animal” for his outstanding ability in that arena. However, the Japanese translator saw criticism in the phrase and conveyed the wrong meaning. The phrase has had a negative connotation ever since.
The 17th presidential election vividly illustrates how Koreans have followed the way of the Japanese and become animals. Voters only had one thing in mind, namely which candidate could revive the economy. All of the other issues were pushed to the backseat. The voters who supported the progressives turned to Lee Myung-bak basically because of the economy, and the conservative voters did not back Lee Hoi-chang for precisely the same reason.
Since an election is a power struggle, in essence, it is only natural that you bet “all in” to win. It might sound ironic, but now that the election is over, we need to transcend the economy. The reason is simple. Even though the citizens may be economic animals, the state should not turn into one. When each individual is obsessed with money, as long as it does not harm anyone else, there are no causes for trouble. However, it is different for a politician who is responsible for administrating the country.
The duty of the politician is to mediate different interests among the citizens and create a consensus within the diversity. Being a “political animal” is the most important trait of a leader. It is especially crucial in Korean society, since we are experiencing serious internal chasms. Therefore, president-elect Lee Myung-bak should go beyond being the “CEO president.” Of course, you still need to act as a mediator when managing a company, so Lee might argue that there is no reason for a CEO-style president not to bring about a national consensus.
The difference is that a CEO, acting in the best interest of the company, can fire employees, while a president can never dismiss a citizen. In terms of purpose and responsbilities, a president is innately different from a CEO.
In retrospect, the voters were charmed by Lee’s “CEO” motto. Whether right or wrong, Lee is being investigated by a special prosecutor even though he is the president-elect. That symbolizes the situation in Korea today, in which a CEO might be a locomotive equipped with hidden irregularities. It also means Korean society still does not have a sufficient foundation, including transparency and accountability.
Therefore, I cannot help but ask again. No matter how outstanding a person’s economic ability, do we Koreans want to be known as economic animals? Are we really happy as long as we are well-off economically, even if we have to neglect values, such as transparency, rule by law and ethics?
The Japanese provide the clues to these questions. The frenzy about Korean pop culture still exists in Japan, although it has cooled. Signing events involving popular Korean celebrities sell out instantly. However, the boom did not occur due to the outstanding marketing tactics of management companies or the distinguished acting abilities of the Korean actors. What the Japanese love about Korea’s pop culture is sincerity. It all started when Lee Su-hyun, a Korean student who was studying in Japan, died saving a Japanese man from a subway accident. Ever since that tragedy, the Japanese have been grateful and trusting of Koreans.
After all, sincerity and trust is what moved the Japanese economic animals. Without this social capital, we cannot attain economic development. The more a society develops, the more important these values become. Fortunately, we Koreans can build up our sincerity and trust. I hope the presidential election is an opportunity for the citizens to pursue bigger, rather than immediate, economic interests and greater politics rather than the economy.

*The writer is an economics professor at Saitama University, Japan. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Woo Jong-won

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