[Viewpoint]The courage to overcome
Korea’s national soccer team defeated Saudi Arabia 2-0 early Thursday morning, a victory that ended a 19-year drought against the country. Around the same time, the Seoul Metro labor union and management struck a deal in their wage negotiations, sparing Seoulites a traffic nightmare in the snowy morning rush hour. The good news, however, ended there.
At around the same time, the Dow Jones industrial average closed down more than 5 percent, slipping below the 8,000-point level. Consumer prices dropped by 1 percent in October, showing signs that the fears of deflation are coming true.
The local market reacted sensitively to this situation, which brings back memories of the Great Depression of the 1930s and Japan’s lost decade in the 1990s.
Seoul’s stock market crashed below 1,000 points yesterday as sleet fell from the sky, and the local currency skyrocketed to over 1,500 won to the dollar. The cold weather has continued for three days, but the temperature started to warm up on Thursday. The warmer weather, however, will be temporary, and winter will come soon. The economy too, is heading into harsher weather.
Eleven years ago, the Korean government announced that it will receive loans from the International Monetary Fund. A few days later, I was appointed head of the newspaper’s economic news department, and covered the foreign exchange crisis for the next two years.
I vividly remember the nation’s agony. I’m trying to assure myself that such hardship will never return, but the winter is ahead, and we have to find a way to endure the bitter cold.
The crisis of today is certainly different from the hardships of 11 years ago. Korea’s foreign currency reserves are larger than back then, and the financial institutions’ risk management and corporate soundness (such as productivity and debt ratio) are much better than in 1997.
However, in the face of a global crisis, the effect of such improvements can only be limited. No matter what happens, households and individuals are the last stop in the chain of financial pain.
No one knows how much longer this crisis will continue. Some say one year, others say five - but that’s all speculation. What we can do is to prepare ourselves as much as possible. To this end, people, particularly the most vulnerable groups, should be given the power to endure.
During the hard times of the past, many suffered because they had no jobs with which to support their families. Many suffered because they could not pay for their children’s education or medical bills. The basic ability to endure a crisis is rooted in employment, education and medical welfare.
Among these, employment is the most important. It not only makes ends meet, but performs an important role in maintaining one’s dignity and family relationships. Next year, the economy will likely grow no more than 3 percent. Up to 60,000 jobs will be lost for each percentage-point drop in the growth rate, and it is easy for us to imagine the dire job situation next year.
Our top priorities should be how to increase and maintain employment, and how to care for those who lose their jobs by providing employment insurance and job training.
The government’s plan to ease regulations on the development of the capital region should be understood as a means of creating more jobs. And the plan to extend the contract period of outsourced workers from two years to three or four should be seen as a measure that will help people maintain their jobs.
The current situation is too severe to pursue ideals. The economic crisis may deprive the young of their right to an education, leaving permanent scars on their futures. The number of child care centers and kindergartens should be increased, and school meals for elementary, middle and high school students should be improved. Tuition loans for university students must be expanded. The nation needs to do its best to make sure that the future of the young generation will not be ruined by the hardships of the present.
Fortunately, Korea’s state medical insurance system is better than the programs in many other countries. And yet, we should still prepare for an increase in the number of people who will have trouble paying their premiums.
The Nov. 25 issue of The Economist published the 50 lessons that Lee Heui-keon, the founder of the Shinhan Financial Group, told Ra Eung-chan, the group’s current chairman. “Losing a fortune is a small loss, and losing trust is a big loss. However, losing courage is losing everything,” Lee said.
Courage is the power to overcome a crisis. Courage is the ability to maintain hope. With just little bit of support, a courageous person can do anything. The government should provide such support, and society must unite in helping each other.
The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.