Extraordinary times

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Extraordinary times

This year will be an extraordinary year. Twelve months ago, we were in high spirits, marking the historic 60th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Korea and a new leader was at the forefront of leading the nation. Hope was in the air. Less than one year later, a harsh winter has begun for us following the global economic turmoil.

We have faced crises in the past. There were security and economic emergencies in the 1960s and 1970s, and the economy collapsed in the aftermath of the 1998 financial crisis. However, these events had a temporary impact on only certain sections of society. The current crisis is truly new, a very different animal. It has engulfed the whole world. Koreans alone cannot resolve the crisis, making the future all the more perilous.

In 2009, Korea will be plagued by the following five pains: low economic growth, export reduction, bankruptcy, higher unemployment and shrinking household spending.

Korea might well have to face up to negative growth, like in many other countries. The economies of the United States, Europe, China and Japan, which have been the major export markets for Korea, are shrinking faster than at first thought.

Companies will tumble into bankruptcy one after the other from early this year and the rate of employment will climb ever higher, bringing misery to families. Many people in the middle-income classes will suddenly find themselves straining to ward off poverty.

Only dreamers will be able to deny the reality.

A painful time is approaching. So, what should we do? How will we extract ourselves from the swamp, and which way should we head if we do?

Leadership should play a pivotal role in helping the country recover from the crisis. We can already see that developed countries are forging closer ties, led by Barack Obama, Hu Jintao and Nicolas Sarkozy, while Korea faces turbulent times in leadership. The ruling party has become just a figurehead due to the lack of leadership, and the opposition parties remain a careless force.

Politics should be a fountain of wisdom in society. Without a fully functioning political base, we won’t be able to reinvigorate the economy and recover from this crisis. The president is determined to work hard to resolve these challenging issues, and it is time for us to go out and bat for him. We need to dig deep and offer everything we can.

The government and the people should brace themselves to play their roles professionally. We should first strap ourselves in, weather the turbulence and look for a safe place to land. We have to minimize the pain and explore measures for long-term rehabilitation. The government should explore every possibility, including finance, taxes and deregulation, or we will crash badly.

Private individual support is a prerequisite in encouraging the government to carry out its role. Just like a family sticks together in times of trouble, it is essential that management cooperates with its workers and that we don’t suffer labor relations conflicts as well.

The urgent situation confronting us all is serving as an excellent opportunity to correct the distorted labor-management culture. The new labor-management culture is an integral part of ensuring that global capital returns to Korea.

2009 should be the year for yielding tangible results in South-North Korean relations. In principle, we are supposed to be trying to denuclearize North Korea and strike a balance between what to give and what not to give Pyongyang. In reality, the foremost task facing us is to encourage the North to sit at the negotiating table and peacefully manage a variety of exchange programs such as the Mount Kumgang tourism project and Kaesong Industrial Complex.

The government should accept agreements forged at the inter-Korean summit talks and strive to persuade the North to better appreciate the projects between the two Koreas.

The election of Barack Obama heralds a new chapter in the already close Korea-U.S. partnership. President Lee should act quickly to form friendly ties with Obama as soon as possible. If the Obama administration is poised to have direct communications with the North, Korea should have no reason to refuse. However, cooperation between Korea and the U.S. should provide a firm foundation.

An awkward issue may arise with the Obama administration. The U.S. may ask Korea to renegotiate the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement or dispatch Korean troops to Afghanistan. Our government will have to work hard to ensure that any deals struck between Korea and the U.S. don’t stimulate anti-U.S. sentiment. Last year we saw just how painful this kind of response to the U.S. can be to Korean society.

The economic crisis shouldn’t prevent us from working to install a farsighted national policy on education. The government should be firmly resolved to establish education policies rooted in self-discipline and competition. It should implement its education measures by focusing on diversity so that universities can enjoy more self-regulation and private high schools can flourish.

The Korean Federation of Teachers and Educational Workers Union led by a new chair should stop assuming an aggressive attitude and deliberate on alternative measures designed for schools.

In a year, the JoongAng Ilbo will write an editorial summarizing how Korea responded to the challenges of the economic crisis and how ordinary people reacted to these extraordinary times. Let’s hope that we can pull together as one and make 2009 memorable for one thing: our efforts to recover.

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