[Viewpoint]Progress worth living for

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[Viewpoint]Progress worth living for

Korea’s economic performance in the fourth quarter of last year was a great shock to us. The country’s real gross domestic product shrank 5.6 percent, and almost all economic indicators, such as consumption, investment, and exports, reflected the nation’s worsening economic conditions.

Korea is experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis, not seen since the beginning of its era of development, except for the first quarter of 1998 [during the Asian financial crisis]. The financial tsunami was a sharp jolt that shook the fragile Korean financial market and the more devastating tsunami of economic recession struck the nation.

This year’s economic outlook shows that Korea faces challenges during the first half of the year and will finally show a substantial amount of growth in the latter half. But there is no clear evidence to support this projection

As many governments are trying to boost their economies with interest rate cuts and extra spending, it is expected to reap the desired fruits in the latter half. By the same token, some people expect that the Korean economy seems likely to change for the better with the global economy with the passage of time.

There is a possibility that this outlook will end in empty talk. Our only hope is that a series of unexpected good events come our way in the next few months.

Considering our analysis of the current data available, the possibility that the country might rebound from the economic downturn in the second quarter is almost zero. It indicates that we should wait longer than expected before the economic recovery picture gets clearer.

Korea’s economy has been hailed as on of the most successful examples of recovering from the “IMF crisis” [of the late 1990s] by international institutions, global investment banking giants, the overseas press and foreign observers, who did not clearly see the inside story behind that feat.

It may sound surprising at first to some people, as the country’s growth rate at the time fell to minus 6.8 percent but then rebounded to 9.5 percent in a year. But if we give ourselves such a compliment, it would be hollow praise.

Although it was true that our country’s growth rate rebounded rapidly, we suffered deep wounds. Above all, a great many companies lingered in bankruptcy. We saw a huge increase in the number of self-employed people and non-regular workers, with rising household debt ratios. Although financial statements of companies and financial firms improved, once-vigorous features uniquely found in the Korean economy disappeared. Our society suffers from a deep-rooted illness in the shadow of that V-shaped recovery.

Against this backdrop, we should bear in mind the invaluable lessons learned from the past, to recover from a crisis once again. However, there is a basic question we should think about, which is more important than this.

The suicide rate per 10,000 people has doubled in the past decade, from 1.3 people in 1997 to 2.5 people in 2007. The French writer Albert Camus said, “Suicide is a confession that this world is not the place in which we deserve to live a life.”

It appears that the number of people who have come to such an extreme decision has doubled since the 1997 financial crisis.

Even families cannot prevent a loved one from committing suicide. Thus, the government is not the only one that should shoulder the responsibility for stopping the rising suicide rate.

However, if the government does not feel a sense of responsibility for the high suicide rate at all, it no longer has any reason to exist as the people’s government.

Whenever the economy faces a crisis, people criticize without fail, “Where have all the economic scholars gone now?” But we are in such a miserable situation that the academics can no longer answer.

We should help those people in despair understand that Korea is a place where life is still worth living. The burden is so heavy that many economic scholars cannot carry on. Psychologists, writers, philosophers, sociologists, teachers, journalists and politicians should all share the responsibility. Perhaps, each of us should commit to bear an important role as a neighbor.

Years from now, when our economy has improved and our growth rate has risen again, we should not congratulate ourselves on our recovery if the suicide rate has risen higher than now.

Ambitious projects, such as the maintenance of four great rivers and redevelopment of the city center, might have nothing to do with those in despair. It is high time to have more effective communication with the people, now.

*The writer is a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Finance. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Jong-gyu
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