Going Global in New Millennium - (6); Korean Society and Political Reform

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), November 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

Going Global in New Millennium - (6); Korean Society and Political Reform


The stark reality of the recent financial crisis has made it apparent that Korea is not exempt from international standards and that the assessment by foreign investors does indeed matter.

It is now understood that Korea can no longer engage in a ``Korean'' version of capitalism that has a prefix of ``crony'' and is riddled with opaque management of financial and business affairs, limited competition and economic decisions based on overt nationalism.

In order for Korea to enjoy the full range of benefits bestowed on advanced countries, change needs to come from the people themselves and through an overhaul in politics. To accomplish this, we need to tackle three obstacles: (1) to alter our perception of law and order by embracing democratic principles as our own; (2) to adopt international standards, behavior and ways of thinking; and (3) to regenerate confidence in the government by electing visionary members that are truly representative of the people. Without fundamental changes in the attitude of the Korean people toward law, democracy and politics, Korea will find itself isolated from the increasingly globalized world.

Law and Order

Koreans tend to regard law as directives that impose upon their individuality and order as a norm that restricts their freedom. Examples of this mind-set are found in every facet of Korean life, ranging from violations of traffic regulations and bribery for business contracts to shouting -- when a normal tone would suffice to convey the point. At the heart of this sentiment lies the historical reality that, as a traditionally Confucian nation and one that has also been colonized, law has always been something to disregard and avoid rather than to comply with.

To be a truly democratic nation, it is essential for Koreans to realize that government power originates from the people's sovereign will. At the same time, government officers must learn to cooperate and act as public servants worthy of their respect.

The IMF's involvement in the foreign exchange crisis in November of 1997 recognized that Korea is an important player in the international community. Such a requisition demands altering societal norms and creating an infrastructure that rewards hard work, accountability and justice.

As W.W. Rostow, a famous economist on economic growth aptly stated, in order for a developing country to join the industrial ranks: ``Men must come to be valued in the society not for their connection with clan or class, or even their guild; but for their individual ability to perform certain specific, increasingly specialized functions and achievements.''

Retention of such unreasonable and traditional connections which derive from old agricultural societies has enabled crony-capitalism to take hold in Korea and is a reason why the corrupt business practices have continued. Plainly stated, Koreans must stop using regional, school and family ties as a means of making economic decisions. Decision-making must be based on an objective, goal-oriented criterion that rewards hard work on the basis of merit.

As one might expect, the source of Korean's tendency to disregard rules is not to be entirely blamed on the people. Indeed, a brief skimming of history traces a legacy of poor leadership and corruption to the highest office of the government for the past three consecutive administrations.

During President Park Chung-hee's administration (1961-1979), the era when Korea was transformed from a traditional society to an industrialized nation, Koreans embraced values such as diligence, savings and cooperation -- values that provided a fundamental source of strength needed for nation building. …

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