[Viewpoint]Exchange fateMore than 13 million people went abroad during the past year, the Korea Tourism Organization estimated.
In addition, a recent survey by MasterCard worldwide said the total number of Korean tourists visiting foreign countries this year is expected to increase by 10.8 percent compared to the previous year.
During the Lunar New Year holiday, in fact, the largest number of Korean travelers in history are expected to head overseas for the event. Whenever they go abroad, most people have to go through annoying red tape to exchange foreign currency. There are few places where Korean currency can be directly exchanged quickly and easily. Even in Southeast Asia, where there are lots of Korean tourists, I don’t think there are very many places in which the Korean won can be changed into foreign currency at the banks.
The Security Bank Corporation in the Philippines is a prime example. There, the Korean won is still treated like the currency held of an underdeveloped nation, such as Africa’s Ghana. According to Samuel Huntington, a world-renowned scholar and the author of the bestselling “The Clash of Civilizations,” Ghana in Africa and South Korea had the same per capita income in the 1960s.
After half a century, however, the difference in economic power between the two countries is more than 50 times.
Korea has accomplished a monumental task in that its exports exceeded $300 billion in 2006. Korea has emerged as one of the top economies in the world. Still, Korea’s currency does not exercise much power in the world’s economy. There is a big gap between Korea’s standing in the global economy and the value put on the Korean won.
I went on a journey last May to the three Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. One day, I was enjoying the paintings and sculptures inside the Kunsti Museum (better known as “KUMU” in the capital city of Estonia). I got hungry, so I went to the cafeteria inside. I ordered sandwiches and coffee. As I tried to open a square packet of sugar, I paused. On the packet, it read “Seoltang,” in Korean characters.
The word sugar was written in 10 languages on the packet. I saw the word in French, Spanish and Russian. However, the only Asian language listed, surprisingly, was Korean ― not Japanese or Chinese. I was so pleased by the unexpected event. Out of all the Baltic countries, Estonia is frequented the least by Koreans. Just out of curiosity, I searched for the sugar company on the Internet and visited its Web site: www.caffemolinari.com. Founded in 1804, it is an Italian coffee company which has made successful inroads into 46 countries.
In sum, the Korean word written on the sugar packet is clear evidence of Korea’s presence in the global community. I took home some extra packets as souvenir.
Korea is a truly great country. I feel that way more when I go abroad. However, so many things do not match up to Korea’s strength in the global community. The Korean won is a prime example. The government devised a measure some years ago to expand the number of countries where Korean currency can be exchanged, to facilitate the development of Korea’s economic scale and make it more convenient for Korean travelers. However, such efforts have not made many big advances.
I sincerely hope the incoming Lee Myung-bak government will raise the power of Korea’s currency in line with Korea’s growing presence in the world’s economy. To do so, the government should pay more attention to expanding the number of nations where the won can be easily and quickly exchanged so that the currency becomes used internationally. That will boost Koreans’ sense of pride in their country, and yield tangible benefits to Korean people by ending the inconvenience of exchanging foreign currency twice.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chung Jin-hong