Unhappy campersMy twenty year as a business news writer has taught me to be wary of doom and gloom. All things being equal, the more positive prospect for the Korean economy is more likely to prove right. Through the history of Korea’s development, the economy faced a series of crises and troubles. But the dynamic parts of our economy managed to break through the obstacles. When in crisis, we came together and managed to find ways out. And the Korean economy has grown to give us a nearly $30,000 per-capita GDP.
But witnessing the series of corruption scandals involving such elite figures as Blue House secretary Woo Byung-woo and senior prosecutor Jin Kyung-joon, disagreement over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system, and the behavior of the shipbuilding unions when the industry is in dire jeopardy, I am worried that we have reached some kind of dead end.
Of course, there has always been corruption, scandal, distrust and discord. But those negative winds have spread so far to have become the new normal. Egocentric sentiments are prevailing. “No matter what happen to others, I’ll secure my interests. I will not tolerate any loss on my side.” Is that the new Korean Way?
Can Korean people summon the kind of team work shown when we collected gold from one and all to help the country get through the Asian financial crisis in 1998? I don’t think so. Various experts also feel negative. Some even say the current situation reminds them of the late Joseon period, Korea’s nadir.
Stanford University professor Francis Fukuyama studied how some countries become successful and others fail when they have similar material and human resources and experience similar economic growth. He concluded that the deciding factor was social capital, a sense of mutual trust, cooperation and communication that helps people efficiently accomplish shared goals. People may compete for personal interests in normal times, but trust, concession and cooperation over the public good prevails when necessary.
Social capital contributed to the Korean economy’s growth through the current day. In our rivalry with North Korea over which system is best for the Korean Peninsula, we have defended market economies and worked together to become economically prosperous. While many decisions were made under dictatorial oppression, people cooperated for the greater cause and accomplished democratization and industrialization simultaneously. The social capital witnessed in the course of overcoming the late 1990s financial crisis stunned the world. For a time, that was the Korean Way.
Goodbye to all that. Korean society is currently experiencing distrust, lack of communication, antagonism and discord. According to the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2016, published by Switzerland’s International Institute for Management and Development, Korea’s social cohesion score fell from 8.04 to 4.17 in the past four years. At this rate, the country wouldn’t be able to overcome another economic crisis. Even when global economic conditions improve, it won’t have the right stuff to get ahead.
What has happened to us? While all citizens need to reflect, the Park Geun-hye administration and elite of Korean society are largely responsible. Just as the Woo Byung-woo, Jin Kyung-joon and Hong Ki-tack scandals have revealed, President Park made mistakes in personnel decisions repeatedly. She disappointed the public by promoting incompetent people who are only dedicated to their own interests. She encouraged antagonism and materialism. People don’t want to make sacrifices when others refuse to. Structural reform has gone down the drain.
Because promotions were made regardless of competence, civil servants became apathetic. In cabinet meetings, Park read what she had written herself, and ministers and secretaries simply took notes. She unilaterally gave orders for state administration without allowing any discussion or heeding any advice.
The social elite and wealthy are blinded by a sense of privilege and look down on the socially vulnerable and the underprivileged. The sense of courtesy and sympathy that Korean people once took pride in have disappeared.
Those with money and power must realize the seriousness of the situation.
When a sense of community disappears in society, discord spreads. The haves become more insecure and uncomfortable, the have-nots envious and angry. Let’s not give up hope yet. Koreans can once again take a dramatic turn towards an advanced society. It’s a shame we had to take the long and hard way. There was an easier path.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 28, Page 32
*The author is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.