Time to talk? Let’s hope so
President Park Geun-hye may finally have gotten it. She acts differently. Responding to screams about communication problems, she hired a special adviser for political affairs to better connect with politicians. She plans to form an advisory team on economic affairs. She more or less has admitted being too standoffish with both the political and business spheres.
Companies cannot speak as openly as people and politicians. But they, too, have a lot to say. A businessman I spoke to said external and domestic business conditions are worsening, but there was no one in the government with whom entrepreneurs could talk. The man was chief executive officer of a corporation that is a household name, and he was right about Korea Inc. being in a tight spot. All mainstream industries are struggling. Chinese enterprises are breathing down their necks and could tower over them at any moment. Korean companies are desperately trying to stay in the game.
Many experienced executives had to go because of restructuring. Yet the government keeps nagging companies to boost investment and hire more. The team spirit was shattered long ago. Companies heave heavily under pressure from all sides. It is lonely and frustrating to do business in Korea. Korean businessmen are desperate to talk to the government.
Some would say why not just go and pay a visit to government officials? But it isn’t that simple anymore. People are watching everywhere with suspicious eyes. If any well-known businesses meet with government officials, they could be suspected of lobbying or shady deals. Both the business and government have become sensitive with all the talk about corruption and collusion.
It’s a different scene in Japan, which also has been eager to revive its economy. The relationship between the government and business is cozier than ever. The government reached out first. As soon as he took office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched a meeting in January 2013 to enhance industrial competitiveness. Bureaucrats and businessmen talk candidly about various issues. There have been 19 meetings so far.
All cabinet members related to the economy, science and technology, as well as the cabinet secretariat, must take part. Abe has not missed a meeting. From the business side, all chairmen of the traditional manufacturing industry, led by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the IT sector, consulting experts and academics are invited. Novel ideas like creating comprehensive resort complexes and special industrial zones had their beginning in the meetings.
Japan is bigger and more advanced economically and technologically than Korea. But officialdom and industry have managed to join hands to help refuel their country’s economy.
In the early industrialization period, 20 first-generation business owners, including founders Lee Byung-chul of Samsung, Chung Ju-yung of Hyundai and Koo In-hwoi of LG created a group to promote economic reconstruction. During their meetings, they discussed ways to build infrastructure industries - cement, steel and fertilizer, among them - and contributed to establishing the foundation for industrialization. South Korea’s rags-to-riches miracle was achieved in no small part by close communication between the government and business.
It is not too late to start again. If the president, government officials and members of the business community meet frequently and talk frankly, they could come up with surprisingly fresh ideas and solutions. They should, however, not limit their discussions to the old school. The younger generation of entrepreneurs should be invited for input. Businessmen who regularly meet with influential people of the world should be asked to share their thoughts. The best candidates are Vice Chairmen Lee Jae-yong of Samsung and Chung Eui-sun of Hyundai Motor. CEOs of IT companies like Naver and Daum KakaoTalk also should be included.
Veteran entrepreneurs like Park Yong-man could add wisdom. If the president feels uncomfortable about hosting meeting with entrepreneurs, the prime minister or deputy prime minister on economy could take on the role. Cabinet ministers should not just make formal rounds to speak at business-sponsored breakfast seminars, but sit down with businesspeople for serious talks. If the meetings take place in the form of open discussions and produce actions, few will suspect a shady relationship. The president declared this year was her last chance to revive the economy. The clock is ticking.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 10, Page B8
*The author is the industry news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Pyo Jae-yong