Key to Koreas economic future (1)
Last fall, I started working on a project that I loosely titled ``Bridges to Beauty.” It was a simple idea really.
All I did was choose two Han River bridges and I basically walked back and forth along the riverside parks picking up trash. One Saturday while I was making my rounds, an older gentleman stopped me and said, ``Thank you.” A few moments later, a young couple summoned me over to their blanket and offered me some chicken and beer. The outpouring of appreciation was extraordinary, but at the same time, I began to grow concerned.
Why was I being thanked and offered food?
It’s not my role to question the motivation of those kind souls who went out of their way to show their gratitude, but their doing so certainly raises a few questions. It’s safe to assume that the main reason I was being thanked by so many people was due to the fact that I was a non-Korean voluntarily cleaning up a park. Sure, they appreciated the park being cleaned, but would they have stopped and thanked a Korean man doing the same thing?
The issue here is not that I was cleaning up a park. The real issue here is that I was cleaning up ``their” park. Only, it’s not ``their” park. In fact, it’s just as much mine as it is theirs. I have been a resident of Seoul for five years and have paid taxes just like everyone else. When I go out and clean up a city park, it’s because I want to see the parks in my city clean.
This mindset, however, is not limited to such trivial situations like cleaning a city park. Koreans in general seem to believe that this country can only be owned by those who possess their ``minjok” or pure Korean blood line. I understand that simply paying taxes doesn’t make me Korean per se, but now that Korea allows dual citizenship, there will be millions of people of other nationalities and ethnicities who are going to be South Korean citizens ― or simply put: Koreans.
Currently, Korea is at a crossroads both socially and economically. The nation has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. It has the highest suicide rate in the OECD. Along with Japan, Korea is aging more rapidly than any other nation on the planet. Korean companies have the lowest number of foreign bosses, managers and employees in the OECD. And as of July of this year, the Korean government plans on implementing a new law that will force small companies to limit employee weekly working hours to forty.
All of these very real problems pose a serious threat to Korean productivity and economic expansion. Hajime Kitano, a senior economist at JP Morgan Securities, predicts that unless these trends are reversed, Korea will enter a ``lost decade” (or two) much like Japan has been experiencing since the 1990s.
If Korea wants to avoid following in Japan’s footsteps, now is the time to open the nation up to people and talent from all over the world. Allowing dual citizenship is a great step that will seriously reduce the effects of ``brain drain,” but that’s not enough to stave off the full-blown labor disaster that’s sure to hit Korea unless measures are taken to combat it.
Immigration policies need to allow for enough flexibility so that people know they can grow and succeed here. People need to feel like this nation is just as much theirs as it is the ethnic Koreans. When I clean the park, I want people to know that I’m not doing it for them, but I’m doing it for all of us. After all, this is “our” nation, right?
The writer has been teaching modern Korean social issues and current events for the past four years in southern Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on his blog at www.asktheexpat.blogspot.com. This is the first installment of a three-part story.