A place called hope

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A place called hope

The year 2016 dawned on a gloomy note. The young are getting nowhere fast no matter how hard they try and the economy is turning from bad to worse. There is no hope in the air at the start of a new year. People are too busy trying to get by to pay any heed to pleas from the president for public support for her agenda. Gone are the days when people found comfort in working patiently for their family and country.

A recent survey showed that public apathy has reached an all-time high. Skepticism breeds mistrust, and distrust reinforces and justifies selfishness. It is sad to witness the Republic of Hope - built on toil and sweat in a collective aspiration to transform a basket-case economy after colonization and war into an industrial powerhouse - shrivel in apathy and self-pity.

Psy, who made an international splash with a ridiculous horse dance, once said the power of Hallyu (the Korean Wave) comes from intensity and meticulousness. If Korean politicians, business managers and the elite of our society worked as hard as the Hallyu entertainers and planners, we would have nothing to fear no matter how fierce the competition is with neighboring Japan and China. Local entertainment agencies incubate and train aspiring stars for 10 years and debut them on stage after a thorough studying of the market. No industry can match the entertainment sector for its rigorousness and scrupulousness.

The entire process requires a feel for the new and a capacity to design a concept, be nimble in its execution and come up with innovative solutions to problems. It’s an industry that must read the subtle and capricious market and trend. Without building up experience, knowledge, skills and talent, an innovative solution cannot be produced. Ignorance of what’s going on in a market raises real risks.

We are worried about our mainstay export items like mobile phones, steel and ships due to a lack of innovation or even a clear reading of the markets for thos products. It is miraculous that the manufacturers have come this far through mere emulation and reproduction. Korean companies have caught up to and beat Japanese rivals in some areas. What drove Koreans to compete so fiercely was the “hope gene” innate in Koreans.

“Monozukuri” refers to the Japanese art of manufacturing. The principle and work ethics of monozukuri survived even when the country muddled through its so-called lost decades. Dedication to craftsmanship derived from obligation and gratitude towards an employer and the nation. This was what induced global brands like Toyota and Fujitec to turn out world-class products. Monozukuri encompasses a long and patient buildup of commitment and time. In a narrow-minded and highly conventional society like Japan, mastery in craftsmanship was the only way for a non-elite class to climb the social ladder. Whatever the motive may have been, the intrinsic and quintessential pursuit of perfection allowed the Japanese to finally come out of a long stagnation.

Koreans are facing similar challenges. We must revive our innate strength - being hopeful in hopeless situations and daring under impossible circumstances. In the areas of fervor and meticulousness, Koreans have been trained for more than a century. The starving common people in the 19th century sang and danced their worries away. The merchants formed touring bands and troupes to attract people to the market, and the working class found relief in their entertainment and music.

They weren’t idling or hiding from cruel realities. They transformed the pain and suffering into playful art for catharsis. Hopes of combatting poverty and modernizing the country were the dynamism that brought about fast industrialization and built pride in the people that they could accomplish anything if they set their minds on it.

Is this mere nostalgia for the good old days? Looking back, there has never been any easy day for Koreans. We may be paying the price for achieving so much without accumulating sufficient technology, experience and wisdom. We must fill the the gaps created from fast growth and close the loopholes we failed to mend along the way in order to become innovators and front-runners.

Reforming a system takes time. But we must study what we missed and what we lost about ourselves during our obsessive rush toward the single goal of prosperity for a nation. A slowing of growth and income stagnation may be the inevitable course we must take to reach the next level. Whenever we hit a snag, we must rely on our hope DNA. It should be our drive and primary motivation. The most motivated country is sinking. We must pull ourselves back up. We got through the 20th century thanks to an ethos of hope. That is exactly what can put us back on our feet again.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 19, Page 35

The author is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun
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