[Viewpoint] Leaving behind the year of low

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[Viewpoint] Leaving behind the year of low

December has come, and with it a traditional year-end activity: selecting a Chinese character that will summarize the year. Last year, characters with negative meanings were selected. Japan selected byeon, which means rebellion, to change, to become different, to transform or to vary. Taiwan selected nan, which means confusion or disorder.

In Korea, a group of professors selected the old Chinese expression “lost in five miles of fog.” While the character is chosen in Japan and Taiwan through public votes, professors or politicians make the selection in Korea, and they tend to prefer a four-letter Chinese expression rather than a single character. So far, I don’t recall Korea ever picking a single character to represent the year.

Which characters will be chosen this year? I don’t think Korea, Taiwan or Japan will chose hui, which means happiness, or nak, which means good cheer. This year has been tougher than last, and I have not seen improvements.

I am not sure what Japan and Taiwan will choose, but Korea has a very strong candidate. It is jeo, which means low. For a long time, the jeo has been overwhelmed here by the go, the high. People don’t even like to say the word “low.” The expression is “highs and lows,” not “lows and highs,” after all. Even “Shuowen Jiezi,” the original Han Dynasty dictionary by Xu Shen, defined “low” merely as the opposite of “high.”

And yet, Korea’s politics, economy, society and culture were dominated by jeo this year. It is hard to describe the year 2009 without the word. That’s why it deserves to be this year’s Chinese character for Korea.

This year, Korea’s economy faced low growth, barely marking zero percent. It was the lowest since the foreign exchange crisis. This is, of course, better than the expected forecast of negative growth, but it is still unsatisfactory because enormous fiscal stimulus spending had been used to bring about this result.

The society also faced low childbirth. This is not a new issue, but the low fertility of Korea has become a hot topic this year. The government launched massive campaigns with flashy slogans, and ministries busily presented measures to increase the birthrate. The welfare minister said low childbirth would be more harmful in the long run than a nuclear bomb.

Last week, some bold measures were proposed, such as lowering a child’s school entrance age from 6 to 5 and guaranteeing jobs for third children.

It’s been well known that there is not a single spot-on resolution to resolve low fertility, because the crisis is a product of complex problems in Korean society such as expensive private education, high housing prices, unemployment and gender discrimination.

Politicians promote policies benefiting the low-income class. These are also called “people-friendly” policies. At the beginning of its term, the Lee Myung-bak administration had promoted business-friendly policies, but it made a sudden turn this year. More and more measures have been presented to support the low-income class, while the government kept its distance from the wealthy.

Opposition parties were upset that the government was invading their strongholds, and the two sides waged a war to win the hearts of the low-income class. A signboard has even been erected near the Blue House that reads, “I feel discriminated against for not being a member of the low-income bracket.”

Lower carbon dioxide emissions was the slogan for the environmental community. This was the year of green. Everything was repackaged with that magical word attached. The four river restoration project and the Sejong City development program were painted in green. Korean society went through 2009 certain that only the greenest would rule the future.

In the cultural community, “loser syndrome” was strong. On a TV show, a female university student said all Korean men who are shorter than 180 centimeters (5 feet, 10 inches) are losers. The aftermath was severe. She had provoked the complex of short Korean men, and the remark was a simple, but accurate summary of Korea’s lookism. And this uproar could also be summed up with jeo.

Jeo is the bottom. There is nowhere to fall any further after you reach jeo. There is an old Chinese idiom that says the situation will move in the opposite direction after hitting one extreme. If this year was the year of jeo, perhaps next year will be the year of go. Isn’t that enough to make jeo Korea’s character of the year?


*The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

by Lee Jung-jae

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