[Viewpoint] Thoughts on a hot summer night

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[Viewpoint] Thoughts on a hot summer night

At the beginning of the millennium, the Asian Wall Street Journal asked a group of prominent people what the most influential invention in history was. The answers were things like insulin, penicillin and gunpowder. But Lee Kuan Yew, founding prime minister of Singapore, selected the air conditioner, saying that the economic growth of Singapore would not have been possible without it.

I was reminded of that by the heat wave that has hit Korea this week.

Lee was perfectly serious in his choice of history-making inventions. At the time, the Internet was fairly new and Viagra and other extraordinary inventions had barely been commercialized. Even with those items as contenders, he would have had no hesitation selecting the humble air conditioner. If you think about the climate of Singapore, it was undoubtedly the most important invention for a leader who has to bring together a people’s energy to realize his national strategy.

Korea is lucky enough to have four seasons. Mountain hikers need to buy two sets of clothing, for summer and winter, and our consumption of some goods is double that of other areas. It is a country that doesn’t naturally reward the idle, not with our seasons. And these days, the seasons are changing in different ways every year, and this year’s summer is hotter than last year. Luckily we have our air conditioners and the Olympic Games to watch during the tropical nights of the summer of 2012.

Soon, the games will end, the summer will pass and the country will enter the period leading up to the presidential election. Without the Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon, this year’s presidential election would have been very dull. Now, voters disappointed with business-as-usual politics can pin their hopes and expectations on Ahn. To other politicians, he may be scarier than a villain in a scary movie, but to voters, as observers and political analysts, he’s a heaven-sent commodity in a political season that would otherwise be yawningly boring.

It was frustrating, however, to see the discussion of how to evaluate the rule of the late President Park Chung Hee. Both sides clearly were trapped in their close-minded historical views. They should rise above them. China’s Deng Xiaoping, who was almost killed by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, later gave an official evaluation of Mao after he himself had gained ultimate power. “Mao’s merits were seven and his demerits were three.” You can argue over the judgement, but it shows a flexible mind.

If Park Geun-hye could have answered questions about her father’s rule with sincerity by saying his merits would weigh this much, while demerits would weigh that much, the schism in the country might have have been mended a bit. But one feels extremely hot just thinking about such a situation.

Amidst the scorching heat wave, it feels even hotter to read “Ahn Cheol-soo’s Thoughts,” the bestseller recently published by the liberal’s great presidential hope. He may reveal his ideas more fully in the fall. His book is not satisfactory enough to be considered a presidential bid by a strong contender. The book is ordinary. Although the Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon exists, Ahn’s own existence is not clear. Still, he is one of the most important factors in the December election. Politicians are busy calculating whether they want to form an alliance with him or check his rise. Thinking about the political reality of the country makes me feel like I’m in lava.

After the April general election, it no longer works to ask voters to just cast ballots as a judgement on the Lee Myung-bak administration. As the summer passes, welfare, economic democratization and communication became hot topics, but they can fade away. These days, the problem is not about jobless growth. In this hot summer, business is slow, and there seems to be not much hope for growth for Korea in general, or for the world, this year and next.

Many say North Korea is changing but it needs more time to show it. When we look at the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang resort, the North already made some dramatic changes in its thinking and implemented them. The two cities used to be the military bases, but the North pulled its troops out and built an industrial complex and a tourist resort. Although Mount Kumgang tours have been stopped, the Kaesong Industrial Complex is still growing.

Let us think about the Songdo Free Economic Zone in Incheon. Not a single foreign profit-based hospital is allowed to be built, and then the country complains that the area failed to generate jobs. The situation is so bad that some proposed to build an international pet hospital to silence the complaints about fairness in medical services. Thinking about the situation fuels the heat wave.

We really need to reform and open up the country. We should make the country more attractive for foreign investors. It would be a step forward from going to other countries to earn profits by opening our market to other countries. Without a daring plan to change the country’s framework, there won’t be growth by stimulating domestic demand, certainly not enough growth to support welfare in a country with 50 million people. Koreans in their 20s and 30s will soon go into their 40s and 50s. Who will be the president to present a specific vision on what kind of a country they will actually live in? Thinking about it really turns up the heat.

*The author is the editor in chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Su-gil
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