Resetting KoreaWe exchange New Year’s greetings at this time of the year. It feels a little awkward wishing goodwill when people in general cannot feel good in times of disgraceful political behavior and serious unrest. Citizens are still gathering in the downtown streets of Seoul every weekend as scandalous wrongdoings of the presidential inner circle continue to be exposed. The president remains unremorseful and a public outcry and feelings of hopelessness cease to subside added with uncertainties about the outcome of the impeachment proceedings. Some optimists claim this is a phase that is necessary as growing pains for national development. But the social damage and immediate pains are too deep to take that form of comfort.
But we have to shake ourselves out of defeatism and restore order. We cannot go on with the parade of self-pity and wretchedness when there is so much work to be done.
Korea is in a grave state afflicted by domestic and external risks. The economy is in a perilous situation. Hopeful signs are dashed by a fundamental shrinking of the working population due to demographic factors of low birth and rapid aging. The social divide is deepening due to job security. Korea is losing its presence in the global order, which is decisively turning inward.
Korea is underrated because of stagnant living conditions despite a relatively solid economic performance. Having lost dignity from the Choi Soon-sil scandal that uncovered all the shady and embarrassing hypocrisies and irregularities of our elite society, a mockery has been made of Korea’s economic, social and cultural self resources. We must carry out a national campaign to reinvent this country.
The economy must be reset to join the global evolution of the fourth industrial revolution. The first revolution stemming from British light industry in the late 18th century brought about socioeconomic changes. The second was led by German heavy industry evolution in science and technology. The third revolution was inspired by the U.S.-led ICT sector. The fourth will bring a big bang to the human civilization on a far greater scale than the three previous revolutions.
The fourth industrial stage will undermine the role of humans. In the earlier three stages, a human role was essential to make the machines work. But in an age in which machines will not only outperform human labor but also mimic human thinking and learning, all the concepts and approaches based on humans will have to change. Within the next two decades, half of the jobs held by humans could be done by machines. This civilizational challenge demands quick retooling of our national system.
Koreans were able to catch up and outpace other countries through their exceptional ability to emulate the best practices of developed countries and companies. But in today’s fierce game of survival, originality and creativity will determine competitiveness. The copycat growth model no longer works. We have reached a dead end and can’t afford to delay the work of reinventing the national system with creativity. Creativity is particularly required to study and understand inner social changes during the transition from an industrial society to an information society and from an information society to an intelligence society.
The abuse of public power has ironically brought about a new kind of social unity. The conservatives, liberals, traditional and new media have become united. Adult and younger generations that differed in political beliefs and lifestyles also have become one. People of different class, ideology, gender, region and religion have been brought together in their common outrage against the corrupt mainstream.
What is imperative is not to let this exceptional momentum of integration go to waste and elevate the energy into a powerful push to advance the country. This is not the work of the people on the streets, but those in the institutions.
In an open-end era with infinite platforms for free debate, anyone can speak his or her mind. But there will be no progress in society if the ideas are not included in public reviews and policy-making. The institutions must stop wrangling and spearhead a grand campaign to reinvent the nation.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 2, Page 33
*The author is a professor emeritus of sociology at Korea University.