[Viewpoint] Overconfi dence could spoil Korea

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[Viewpoint] Overconfi dence could spoil Korea

Is Korea on the brink of becoming a truly advanced country? Confidence has risen in recent months with the splendid results at the Winter Olympics, the winning of a nuclear power construction contract in the United Arab Emirates and Korea’s forthcoming hosting of the G-20 Summit.

But Korean citizens cannot forget the devastating IMF currency crisis which erupted more than a decade ago. Our actions at that time, however, revealed our strengths.

Compare our response to those Latin American and Eastern European countries that faced similar currency crises and decided to declare a debt moratorium.

Pursuing a brinkmanship policy with creditors, these nations were offered principal debt forgiveness by international banks. Korea also looked at a menu of options for voluntary debt reduction in addition to debt forgiveness.

But it decided in the end to take the proper road in dealing with the problem in spite of the stringent austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund.

State-run enterprises and blue-chip company equities were sold in large portions overseas, and tens of billions of dollars worth in foreign exchange was used to repay foreign banks and the IMF.

As a result, Korea since then has been seen by international financial markets as a model country in dealing with debt issues.

Korea’s “can-do” spirit is apparent elsewhere. When the Taean Peninsula oil spill occurred, millions of Korean citizens stepped forward to provide their volunteer services during a cold winter. During the currency crisis, Korea’ donated gold to pay the nation’s debts in a move that surprised the world. I believe that this mind-set is the same that moved the warrior monks and common farmers to resist the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592 and was the spirit behind the March 1 Independence Movement of 1919.

I’m reminded of the story told by the commander of the U.S. 7th Air Force that when Gen. Douglas MacArthur arrived in Korea four days after the Korean War started, he asked a Korean soldier in a trench south of the Han River whether he was preparing to retreat.

The Korean private responded, “There were no orders to retreat, sir!” When asked if there was anything he needed, the private responded, “Please give me a rifle and bullets, sir.”

It was the strong response of the private that persuaded General MacArthur to order the dispatch of the U.S. forces then stationed in Japan to Busan two days later on July 1.

But an increase in the national income alone will not make us an advanced country. Respect for the law must also be observed and we must help those less fortunate rather then bragging about our wealth.

Last summer, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon paid a visit to a country devastated by a natural disaster. A unruly mob of people gathered around his jeep. Armed with wooden sticks, the mob appeared to threaten Ban.

However, the secretary general calmly grabbed hold of a loudspeaker and climbed on the roof of the jeep. As he declared that “I’ve come to give you a home. To give you food and water,” the crowd began to cheer.

After hearing this story, I remember my younger days right after the Korean War.

I remembered eating corn and powdered milk the U.S. donated to Korea, and studying English through the books and Hollywood movie transcripts borrowed from the United States Information Service.

Compared to the demands of a needy world, the UN budget is always declared insufficient. Now is the time for us to help. Korean companies and citizens must make a united effort so the secretary general’s promises can become a reality.

Our desire to share our development experiences with other countries and increase our foreign aid contributions is our government’s recent response to repay the help that we received in the past. It is a role well-suited for Korea in supporting international society.

Nationalism grounded in a supposed ideological or racial superiority is dangerous. Japanese acquisitions of foreign banks over the past decades have not been successful. But when we invited Guus Hiddink as the national football team coach during the 2002 World Cup, did we not meet with success?

A dozen years ago, Daewoo Group’s “global management” advertisements grabbed the attention of Wall Street’s financial institutions. The advertisements displayed Daewoo employees riding horses as if they were hordes of Genghis Khan’s soldiers conquering Eurasia.

Not long after, orders were issued from Wall Street firms to significantly decrease credits and investments to Daewoo Group. While there may be temptations to fully enjoy a sense of accomplishment, when one is going strong, high spirits of arrogance is a poison that brings restraint and jealousy.

One must remain modest and maintain an attitude that respects and is considerate of the opinions of other countries.

This year, the G-20 Summit, the G-20 CEO Summit and the IMF conference will take place in Seoul. There has never been a time where such important international meetings have all gathered at once in our country.

This is a golden opportunity. However, if we approach it incorrectly by displaying a superior attitude, we may set ourselves up for fall that would severely damage our country’s image.

But perhaps I worry too much. After all, I remember the responsible attitude of people during the World Cup games in 2002 when they were careful not to leave any litter in the stadiums or city squares.

*The writer is Chairman & Chief Country Officer of Deutsche Bank Korea and Honorary Chairman of MiG Alley Chapter, U.S. Air Force Association.

By Soo-Ryong (SR) Kim
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