Turning ambitions into energy

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Turning ambitions into energy

I believe 100 percent that Korean people live with “boiling ambition.” I am not the one who came up with the expression. Dominic Barton, global managing director of McKinsey and Company, described Koreans as having “raw ambition” in an interview with a local newspaper. The instinctive ambition constantly surging from their veins is something foreigners find hard to understand. Barton, who worked in Seoul between 1996 and 2004 when Korea was crossing the valley of financial doom, says the observation changed his leadership. He seeks the source of ambition, which is buried deep inside the stratum, ignites ambition and promotes talented people boosted by ambition. It was a process through which ambition could be revealed.

He was certainly not the first one to see ambition in Koreans. In the winter of 1894, Isabella Bird Bishop, a member of the Royal Geographic Society of Great Britain, witnessed the lava beneath the declining medieval kingdom of Joseon. It took about a year before she realized the powerful charm radiating from the lava. Since the unpleasant impressions she had when she first landed in the Hermit Kingdom transformed into strong curiosity, she reached a conclusion: “If a certain administrative opportunity is given, Korean people can display amazing spontaneity.” Koreans crossed the 20th century with boiling ambition and powerful spontaneity.

By “administrative opportunity,” Bishop meant state leadership. After the liberation from Japanese occupation (1910-45), there have been two “opportunities” that ignited tremendous spontaneity for two types of national leadership. The first is obviously the bold dash of President Park Chung Hee. He mobilized and amplified the boiling ambition to create the “Miracle on the Han River.” The other is the “democratic escape” pursued for 25 years.

And by reversing the negatives of the development-driven dictatorship, the democratic leadership managed to push the economy to a per-capita national income of $20,000. Despite the shock of the IMF bailout, Koreans worked hard to find a new escape. As the size of the economy grows and corporate structures expand, it is not easy to seek a new exit to a better future. The ambition is still boiling, yet the dominance of the rules of capitalism has become solid. And the Park Geun-hye administration is faced with the challenge of the moment.

The slogan “creative economy” is evidence that the Park Geun-hye administration has found an exit from the dead end. When the concept first appeared, citizens had a strong impression that the government has prepared solid leadership to create change and fresh opportunity.

But the administration is still drawing the blueprints. When Saenuri Party lawmakers asked what “creative economy” meant, Yoo Min-bong, senior presidential secretary for state planning, responded by saying, “In the end, we want to change the paradigm of economy.” He was simply giving the definition of the phrase. When asked how to make necessary changes, he replied, “We are working on it. Both Choi Mun-kee, minister of science, ICT and future planning, and Choi Soon-hong, senior presidential secretary for future strategies, could not provide any real answer either.

Then, how about the president’s economic team? Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Hyun Oh-seok, Senior Presidential Secretary for Economic Affairs Cho Won-dong and Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Yoon Sang-jick are all career bureaucrats. Not all bureaucrats lack creativity, but their strength is in keeping the economy running smoothly and handling crises.

To distinguish the current administration from its predecessor, Cho Won-dong has already adjusted the growth rate goal. It was a bureaucratic measure to avoid criticism and accountability as sluggish growth is expected. Did the Park Geun-hye administration really succeed in seizing power with the fanciful yet empty concept of “creative economy?” Can they intensify the boiling ambition or will they cool it down instead?

The president has finally become involved and clarified that creative economy means “producing added value, growth engines and more jobs by convergence of an industry with another through integration of science, technology and ICT.” Her aides cited the U-Health pace counter, sodium-measuring chopsticks and K-pop as examples. The list of “original creative industries” goes on and on, including Bio-X, integration of technology and biology, and software ventures.

They all sound very convincing, but what’s more important is what Korea aspires to achieve and who will take the lead. The Blue House said that it would come up with a design by the end of May. It means the administration only had a concept without a concrete plan to begin with.

Two prerequisites should be met for the “creative economy.” Dominic Barton also emphasized these points. Do we really have an environment for a creative ecosystem? We should review whether creative ideas and innovative proposals produced from the brilliant brains of Koreans are nurtured or thrown out in our environment.

Another point is education. With the highest rate of college admission and unrivaled passion for education in the world, Korea certainly has talent and potential.

But we want to know “how.” We have waited so long, so we are willing to give the new government a few more months. Then, the ministries of economy, science and education should hold joint seminars and conferences, discuss overnight and present a comprehensive design for our future. In politics, those who cool down our boiling ambition are called “sinners of history.”

Politicians must work hard if they want to be remembered for being on the right side of history.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun

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