Planting the seeds of the fallI didn’t even realize the summer was passing. Autumn is here and already I am tired of the national commotion and unpleasantness over Lee Seok-ki and his group. The seeds of contradiction planted in the 1980s has spread like a poisonous weed, establishing foothold and vying for real power. The pro-Pyongyang group should have been limited to a tiny fringe, but it was only able to take root because of the oppressive dictatorship of the Chun Doo Hwan regime. In history, what goes around comes around. While the pro-Pyongyang group should wither away, we need to pay attention to other types of bad seeds being planted now that could ruin the future for our children.
The Hyundai Motor strike is one such seed. I cannot be the only one who thinks about the ill fate of Detroit when I look at Ulsan. As debate over what constitutes a “normal” wage and what benefit heads to court, I can imagine our prosperous industrial base turning into a weedy, empty lot. The economy is in the worst condition ever, but the government only worries about collecting taxes. The opposition party is trying to reorganize and win support by camping out on the street, but they won’t be able to achieve a breakthrough. They are all planting ugly seeds that will sprout and grow wild for our children.
Money has stopped flowing and the sentiment of the people has dried up in the financial drought. Bars and restaurants that used to be crowded with customers are empty as people working in the neighborhood are no longer staying late. The economy began to decline in the spring and businesses suffered greatly in the summer. While department stores continue to thrive, local markets have few customers. When I stopped by a jewelry shop to buy a wedding gift for a relative, the owner welcomed me and said that I was the first customer of the day. It was 7 p.m. A friend said that he went to a shop at Yongsan Electronics Market to get a new mobile phone in the late afternoon, and he was also the first customer of the day.
While Statistics Korea released figures that show the rate of increase in the national income is the highest ever, tenants know that it is very hard to keep up with the rising rent. This is the real economy that working-class people feel.
I gave a lecture to a group of reporters from emerging economies, and they all asked the secret to Korea’s economic growth. These enlightened nationalists wished to introduce the secret to their countries, to get out of poverty, and they were convinced that educational ambitions, government support, intense competition and motivation were the keys. But when asked what would be Korea resource for competing in the future, I could not give a plausible answer. They must have noticed that my explanation did not make sense. I didn’t have an answer because the damage caused by groups fighting for their individual interests has outstripped any national enthusiasm for a new leap forward.
Emerging economies envy Korea’s mobile phone, automobile and shipbuilding industries, but aside from these economic prodigies, we have yet to bring a truly innovative product to the world. National competitiveness is constantly declining. The Heritage Foundation’s ranking of Korea dropped from 31st to 34th, and the World Economic Forum rank for Korea is down from 19 to 25.
The biggest cause of the decline is the gap between categories. While Korea is ranked at the top in terms of products and hardware, its systems and software are near the bottom, and when the two categories are combined, the score rapidly falls. Korea is not even on par with Brazil or India when it comes to its outdated financial system, aggressive labor unions, government regulations, political distrust and rigid employment system. The engine of innovation comes from social systems, or soft power, but we are ruining the soil. We don’t even realize how the social system should be.
Workers in Detroit smashed Japanese cars in the 1980s and Korean cars in the 1990s to vent their anger. While they may have felt relieved, they didn’t think that they had just destroyed the foundation of the future for their children. Last year, many companies left Korea rapidly. The Bank of Korea announced that foreign investment peaked last year. The survival instinct of capital is something workers, government and people cannot interfere with. The country is becoming hollow as companies leave, homeless people are left to drift and shops are closed. What good are cell phones, automobiles and appliances when everything is empty?
We are planting the seed of the fall. We need to keep in mind the song of victory that the strong and powerful are singing for their hardware today will return as a heavy sigh for our children. If social innovation is the goal of cultural enlightenment, Korea is only half in bloom.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
by Song Ho-keun