After a year of political, economic and corporate setbacks, South Korea is ushering in the New Year, which is expected to be full of even greater uncertainties.
Its economy, already in a bad shape, is projected to get even worse in 2017. North Korea’s despotic leader is said to be planning a “prime time” nuclear weapons push. The coming Donald Trump administration in the US, South Korea’s top ally, also presents its own set of challenges.
To top it all off, this country of 50 million is lacking leadership, with President Park Geun-hye impeached by the parliament. An election to choose the successor to the scandal-ridden leader will be held this year, but there is a big question mark over when.
Still, South Koreans have reasons to look forward to the future. The New Year has always been a symbol of new beginnings, but 2017 may really be the beginning of a new, more hopeful era for South Korea, with its people more awake and alert than ever.
“After what has happened here, I think the year 2017 has the potential to be a turning point for the country in its path toward total reform, not just in politics but all across society, culture and business,” Kim Won-ki, a retired politician who served as the speaker of the National Assembly from 2004-2006, told The Korea Herald.
Tommy Kim, a 55-year-old entrepreneur in Seoul, also said that he likes to think of 2017 as an opportune time for his home country to part with an old system that has been pestering from inside.
“South Koreans will be electing a new president this year. I hope the new leader can courageously correct our rotten system,” Kim said. Political uncertainty does exist but a bright side to it is that it will also bring positive energy to the country and a new leader who will be at least be more responsive to the people, he said.
In the last two months of 2016, South Korea has been in a turmoil, with tens of thousands taking to the street to oust President Park Geun-hye over a scandal which shed light on the corruption and rampant cronyism at the highest office.
For Jeong Ho-jun, a military officer living in Gangwon Province, the year 2017 is big in more ways than one.
“I will be completing my military service this year, which means I will have to get a new job and a new house… but most of all, there will be a new member in my family,” said Jeong, who is expecting his first baby in April.
“My hope is to see my daughter live healthy in a society where responsible people do their duties, just like army soldiers do,” the officer said, revealing that he plans to watch the first sunrise of the New Year on a beach of Gangeung.
Thirty-year-old Sohn Jae-geun is eager to greet the New Year.
Having entered his dream company in January last year, Sohn said he is ready to absorb and learn everything he can do at work to prove his worth.
“I hope I can learn more things at work in the New Year so I can contribute more to my company and to the national economy,” he said.
He expressed hope that the government in 2017 would spend more on assisting young people like him with fulfilling their dreams, and not just focus on the older generation.
Kindergarten teacher Kim Hi-yeon said she sees hope in every kid she takes care of every day. “By doing my job sincerely in my position, I can give trust to parents who leave their children here every morning. I think that way I contribute to making a brighter future (of Korea),” said the 34-year-old.
A 10-year-old Kim Dong-sung said that her only wish for the New Year is to see her one and only prayer over the past year to come true: get a high score in dictation so she can get a Yorkshire terrier.
“I think studying hard for dictation tests will bring me good results anyways since I want to become a Korean teacher when I grow up,” the elementary school student said.
For Moon Du-sik, spending the last day of the year at a Buddhist temple has been a ritual. This year, he also planned to go to Heungguksa in Goyang, north of Seoul.
“It is really refreshing to go there, wake up early and see the sunrise,” he said.
“My daughter is getting married this year. Marriage is a start of a new part in life and I wish for the best of her. I wish to see a grandchild soon,” said the 67-year-old who runs a restaurant.
A former supporter of President Park Geun-hye, Moon was among the tens of thousands of protestors who took to the street in the last two months of 2016 to demand the resignation of the president.
As for the economic outlook, pessimists clearly outweigh optimists.
A recent poll by Gallup Korea shows that only 11 percent of the people surveyed expect their livelihood to improve, compared to 42 percent who anticipate deterioration. Only 4 percent expect the national economy to fare better in 2017, while 66 percent said economic conditions will worsen.
Last week the government slashed its projection for economic growth this year to 2.6 percent from 3 percent, predicting a third consecutive year of slow growth after 2015 and 2016.
However, some experts continue to pin hopes on exports, the long-time growth driver of the Korean economy.
“Unlike the worrisome domestic situation, external conditions are improving, which will help improve the country’s exports,” said Ju Won, chief of macroeconomic research at Hyundai Research Institute. “Because the global economy is getting better, including the US, Korea can expect growing demand for its products worldwide.”
Rising oil and other commodity prices would help raise unit prices of Korean export goods, leading to higher profits for Korean exporters, the expert said. A weaker Korean currency against the strengthening US dollar may also help increase price competitiveness of Korea-made goods in the global market, he added.
“Since our economy is still more dependent on exports than domestic consumption, such improvement can make a noticeable contribution to growth this year,” Ju said.
New technologies could provide some hope, as well.
According to the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade, Korea’s IT sector would see growing exports of products based on fresh technologies, taking a competitive edge over their global rivals in 2017.
“Korean-made OLED TVs, solid state drives, 3D NAND flash memory products and wearable devices are expected to be highly recognized in the global market, helping boost the country’s IT industry,” said Kim Kyung-yoo, a researcher at the institute. “Despite continuous falls in auto exports, development of high-tech hybrid cars and compact SUVs would be hopeful for the industry.”
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