Lessons from the Vikings
During the Viking Age of the late eighth to 11th centuries, the Scandinavian Norsemen sailed across most of the Atlantic as explorers, colonists and merchants, creating settlements or cities like Dublin in Ireland, York in Great Britain, Kiev in Ukraine and Normandy in France. The skilled seafarers left their vast uncultivable land in search of farming land to stretch as far as to Asia, North Africa and North America. Buddhist statues and rings with Arabic letters were discovered in their tombs, suggesting the scope of their unprecedented journeys.
Although they have been stereotyped as brutal savages, there was a strict set of rules among the Viking warriors and merchants, which they followed during their sea explorations and settlements in occupied territories. Viking society abided by a strict set of rules and action guidelines that were passed from parents to children during a time when most of Europe was in chaos. The rules of the fearless sailors and explorers included some universal wisdom worthy even of today’s generation living in an increasingly borderless world.
The first is to be brave. Action guidelines included commands to be direct, grab opportunities, be versatile and agile in raids, attack one target at a time, don’t plan everything in detail and use the best-quality weapons.
Dial ahead several centuries to contemporary Korea. On Sept. 15, a committee of representatives from the government, labor unions and employers reached a hard-fought agreement to reform the country’s labor market. The scope of the reforms were worthy of the envy of other countries like Spain struggling to improve their own labor structures for breakthroughs in international competitiveness. The agreement had one overarching goal: to revive a structurally weak economy. Employers and unionized employees under the government’s mediation endeavored not to fritter away the momentum and finally came out with an agreement.
But all that work is on the brink of going down the drain because of politicians. The drive for reform could be killed by politically motivated hijinks. The National Assembly long ago stopped working normally. Bipartisanship and flexibility are rare. Politicians are childish fighters without a trace of warrior-like boldness in battle. Politics is the bane of Korea. Korea Inc. can hardly function with such an inferior group leading the nation.
The second rule of the Vikings was to be prepared. The Vikings were commanded to keep their weapons in the best shape and keep themselves fit. They were advised to choose good comrades for battles and told not to disagree in important matters. Most of all, they had to follow one leader.
We, like the Vikings, weren’t blessed with many resources and therefore must rely on our human resources, which have taken us very far. But much of the labor in Korean workplaces is employed for just two years on temporary contracts. Employers placing profit ahead of the welfare of employees and unionized workers desperate not to lose their perks are worsening the inequalities between regular and temporary workers. Young people spend their youths trying to polish up their resumes to get into decent-paying workplaces. But their endeavors prove to be insufficient in the real world, sending the unemployment level higher and higher. Instead of addressing the problem with long-term solutions, authorities trot out makeshift actions. There is no solution but a never-ending blame game.
The third Viking rule was to be a good merchant. Traders were advised to find out what the market needed and not to make promises they cannot deliver on. They were strictly warned not to overprice.
Korea’s labor market needs to be recultivated. What people essentially want is an environment where jobs grow. But that takes planning for the future. Our leaders are not good at planning for the long run. We have been repeatedly warned that the national pension system could soon run out of money and our overall fiscal integrity could be at risk. If the government really runs into trouble, it would be the taxpayers who end up paying. The bilateral free trade agreement with China was ratified in the National Assembly after the government and legislature collaborated to create a fund worth 1 trillion won ($857 million) to help farmers by collecting it from companies that will benefit from trade with China. When a ship is not prepared, it can easily be swept up in turbulent waves. We once were forced to seek an international bailout. There is no guarantee that we may not end up in that position again.
The fourth Viking law was to keep the camp in order. Viking sailors were trained to keep things tidy and organized. The leaders were told to arrange activities for pleasure to further strengthen their men. They were commanded to make sure everyone did useful work. The rules were designed to keep a community in order and content through communication and allow everyone to share the fruits of the group’s labor and endeavors. It was up to every individual and leader to make a community thrive. What a contrast with our society, where leaders are forever fighting and looking after their own good rather than national interests.
The Vikings severely punished those who broke the law, but forgave those who repented. Those incapable of contrition or change were stoned to death. Our politicians should realize that their judgment day is coming. JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 7, Page 32
The author is an editorial writer and senior reporter on labor affairs for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Ki-chan