Korea embraces globalization

July 25, 1995|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Seoul, South Korea -- A SILLY JOKE about Korea's impassioned new economic vision of itself and of the world has a dutiful mother cat trying hard to catch a mouse to feed her hungry babies. Finally, she corners the poor creature in his hole and tries to trick him out by barking like a dog.

At first, the clever mouse thinks to him self, "No, that is only the cat barking . . ." But eventually he is taken in and comes out, only to be snatched swiftly away by the mother cat. As her children applaud, the mother tells them proudly, "And that . . . is globalization!"

Well, learning other people's languages is indeed part of the passion of President Kim Young Sam, who comes to Washington on a historic visit this week. But it is far more than that. In fact, his administration's trendy, but ultimately serious concept of globalization is so many things at once that, if it were not clearly the "future" here, one would be hard-pressed to define what it really is.

* "Globalization means the world market becomes one," explained Kim Kihwan, the experienced chairman of the big Korea Trade Promotion Corp. "It means that one must have production facilities all over the world. Soon it will be harder to identify products in terms of nationality -- say, a Japanese, Korean or American car -- because their parts will be made all over the world.

"But it means we also need a new kind of Korean: one who is less nationalistic, who realizes his life is dependent upon what foreigners do, as much as what his own country does. Koreans must be eager to consider the entire globe as their playground."

* "In our early days, the government said we didn't need to compete," said Jwa Sung Hee, of the Korea Development Institute. "We had only a couple of guys hanging around the starting line. 'Chung' would be picked for this project, 'Lee' for that. . . . It succeeded because they could easily identify who was best.

"But now, the government is announcing what are 100-meter races in the economy -- with 400,000 ready to race. The government can't choose the most successful guy anymore -- it has to rely on the process of competition."

This young economist depicted situations where, for example, company headquarters would still be in Korea, but factories or offices would be abroad. Labor would be found in other countries, as "economic borders disappeared." This would give medium and small companies a new ability to compete against the dominant Korean companies, essentially because the world market would have room for the best of any size. "Globalization," he summed up, "is the very key to our democracy."

* Finally, Lee Hong Koo, the country's able prime minister, told me: "The changes we are witnessing are really epochal, but they are much more than the end of the Cold War. The information revolution is like the industrial revolution of two centuries ago. If you are not at the starting line, you will be in the background for years to come."

Indeed, in other parts of Asia, economic philosophers such as Thailand's renowned Dr. Chai-Anan Samudavanija see the "globalization phenomenon" as necessarily implying a "breakdown of the authority of the nation-state because it opens more room for non-state actors" and sees "businesses bypassing state boundaries . . . building ties with counterparts in other states."

Many of the economic changes are inevitable, as economies become intertwined as never before and as industries in Asia seek ever cheaper production sites. The busy mother cat was all too right on language: A genuine command of English is still hard to find in most of Asia -- and is ever more necessary as a medium of exchange.

Nevertheless, not all is rosy in this Alvin Toffler-ish world across the seas. In Japan and Korea -- and neither one of them is exactly a failure -- my ears were bent over and over by economists privately worried sick that their companies were moving to greener pastures (read, "cheaper labor"). Particularly in Japan, there is a definite intellectual counter-movement in some of the ministries, to the effect that Japanese companies will stay in culture and in spirit Japanese wherever they go, and not even take in foreign managers.

My own fear is that the working classes, who will not be speaking English with counterpart Indonesians and drinking Scotch with Singaporeans at conferences in Bangkok and Bali, constitute the greatest area of danger. They risk being left behind -- and could, I fear, naturally respond in negative ways -- while the new globalizers go out to make their mark in this brave new world.

Stay tuned.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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