[Viewpoint]Finding light at the end of the tunnel

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[Viewpoint]Finding light at the end of the tunnel

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Every morning, I am afraid to read the newspaper. My heart sinks whenever I read expressions like “worst in history” and “lowest ever.” I am scared that some catastrophe might have happened on the other side of the world the night before. Next year seems even gloomier. Some analysts forecast that growth will actually turn negative. Economic experts seem to be competing to produce the most dismal forecasts.

The somber atmosphere has everyone on edge. After having been overwhelmed by candlelight last summer, the government now lacks confidence in everything. The fire has started and already spread to the rafters, but the government still has not decided whether to take out the tiles on the roof and spray water.

The governor of the Bank of Korea said, “We are not in a serious crisis that requires an emergency action, but we are on the border.” Such statements only confuse the citizens. Banks and business giants are keeping a tight grip on their cash and are not willing to act. Households, likewise, are keeping their wallets firmly closed. The government, companies and households are all discouraged by the global financial crisis.

However, where there is life, there is hope. Opportunities have always been created in crisis. The U.S. automobile market seemed impregnable once, but it was finally penetrated by Japanese cars during the first oil shock in the 1970s. As the oil price skyrocketed, American consumers who had been driving big cars turned to smaller, more fuel-efficient Japanese models.

Korea’s shipbuilding industry may have beaten its Japanese rivals and became the best in the world thanks to the second oil shock. While Japanese companies got cold feet and became reluctant to invest in facilities, Korean shipbuilders built a series of extensive shipyards. American electronics giant Apple tempted fate with the iPod in 2001 as the IT bubble was beginning to burst. Apple decided to attack while everyone else was running away. That contrary thinking allowed the company to take over the MP3 player market.

The latest crisis also harbors opportunities. America is a country where people cannot live without cars, and the Big Three automakers are teetering on the edge. Korean automobile manufacturers might struggle for now, but when the market earthquake begins, they could receive a God-given chance.

It is also highly likely that Korean companies will be the winner in the competition with Taiwanese and German companies as semiconductor prices fall. Our Taiwanese and German rivals will soon run out of cash.

The slump in the shipbuilding industry could be a blessing disguised as misfortune. China is the biggest potential competitor to Korea, but the crisis spread before China had time to nurture a shipbuilding industry.

The green energy boom promoted by U.S. President-elect Barack Obama might open up a new market for us. The most efficient clean energy source possible with today’s technology is nuclear power, and Korea has had the most experience in building nuclear power plants over the last three decades.

Opportunities have begun to bud amid the crisis. However, the fruit called chance doesn’t just fall on your lap when you are sitting under the tree.

In Osaka Bay in Japan, Sharp, Sony and Panasonic are building display and lithium-ion battery factories. These electronics makers are determined not to repeat the mistakes from the “lost decade” of the 1990s, when they were reluctant to invest in facilities and ended up losing market share to Korea and Taiwan. Korean companies’ future is dark if they concentrate on picking the fruits grown by others through mergers and acquisitions.

The case of the Big Three U.S. automakers’ unions is a significant lesson for labor unions here. If they trust the power of the mighty union and pursue short-sighted interests, they will blow the great opportunity to come after the crisis. The government needs to find its confidence now. It needs to spend money and take drastic steps when necessary. Only then will the market trust the government.

We are walking in the deepest darkness and cannot see an inch ahead, but dawn will come in the end. Whether we will be laughing when the light breaks is entirely up to us.

The writer is a deputy business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Jung Kyung-min

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