We must become ashamedA half-century ago, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith prophesied the advent of “The Age of Uncertainty.” The good side of recessions, he said, is that they catch what auditors missed. Individuals and companies become watchful of spending to which they would not otherwise have paid attention during happier days. His wisdom could not have hit home in Korea, devastated by the exodus of Chinese visitors and spenders and a boycott of Korean products as a dear price to pay for bringing in a U.S. weapons system.
The ebb of Chinese capital and spenders on the streets from downtown Seoul and all over the southern resort island of Jeju has exposed various problems stemming from the economy’s heavy reliance on China. Blinded by immediate gains, streets in Seoul and Korea’s tourism destinations are brimmed with signs and banners to appeal to and meet the taste of the Chinese. Some could wonder whether they are in Seoul or a Chinese city. Visitors from other places could easily be persuaded not to come back to this country or city.
The crueler the downturn, the bigger the lesson it can bring for the economy. A mild recession cannot remove the sources of weakness such as zombies and harmful players in the economy. The dramatic vanishing act of the Chinese has done its work. If it had been gradual, businesses would have gone even further to court the Chinese. But the absence of the Chinese won’t do us any good if it lengthens. We should use this period of time-out from the Chinese to calmly re-examine our identity and strengths so that we can win over spenders from overseas without having to plead.
Tourism is not the only area in which we need to develop individuality. We are in desperate need of restoring our identity. The Constitution calls this state a democratic republic. But the principles of a democratic republic system that upholds sovereignty of the people — separation of powers, judiciary institutions, and representative legislative — have long been neglected by surrendering all the authority to a single president. The country for the last three decades has run as a monarchial democracy even when the 1987 Constitution was institutionalized to bar dictatorship. We have been seeing the replay of the presidential cycle of a monarch, lame duck, and a failure every five years (four for the latest president.)
Conditions have dramatically improved since the military regime. But we have witnessed how fragile our democratic system has been to push the clock right back to the 1970s under the helm of a self-deluded person.
After watching millions of people hitting the streets demanding the removal of President Park Geun-hye, the Wall Street Journal wondered in a December article why Korea has to protest so much. Why haven’t we learned after all these years?
The bitterer the afterthought, the better. We must become utterly ashamed. We have impeached and removed the president. She is under questioning by state prosecutors to be sent to court. The lessons must hurt more so that we can really learn and change.
The foreign media point to the deeply-rooted collusion in Korean society for all its recurrent problems. The ruling power thinks the title automatically calls for corporate tributes. Companies run to the seat of power that has authority over business affairs and licenses with money. Because of the poisonous connection and tradition, corruption goes on with whoever gains power and sends people to the streets to protest over and over again.
We must once and for all weed out the harmful roots. It cannot be done with the punishment of a single corrupt ringleader. The entire breed of corruption must be eliminated. The faults must be thoroughly dug out and exposed. We must make a manifesto on corruption so that those aspiring to gain the ruling power learn it by heart. They must know that they could face a bigger punishment if the rules are broken. We must see more blood and pain because corruption can easily spring back. Another famous economist Milton Friedman declared that “Governments never learn. Only people learn.” Let’s not make it true this time.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 22, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.