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[Kim Seong-kon] It happened while we fell asleep

In the late 1980s, when I visited big electronic stores in the US, such as Circuit City or Best Buy, I saw Japanese electronics such as Sony, Panasonic, and Hitachi television sets occupy the display floor like a conquering army. Far behind the Japanese products were two or three Samsung TV sets, sadly left out in the cold. Sanyo stereos, Toshiba laptops and Sony Walkman, too, joined the parade in those US electronics stores. At the time, Japanese electronic devices were Americans’ favorite.

In the 1990s, however, I noticed Samsung and LG television sets began to replace the Japanese electronics in the American market. To my surprise, the above American stores suddenly displayed Samsung and LG products in front and had plenty in stock because they were hot items among American consumers. Everywhere I went in the electronics stores in America, I encountered Samsung television sets that outshined and outsold its competitors. Far behind them, it was now the several Sony TV sets, which looked lonely and neglected.

Twenty years have passed since then. A few days ago, I visited a local Best Buy store to buy a Samsung TV set. There it was deja vu all over again. To my surprise, Sony television sets were everywhere once again, displayed in front, and so were Toshiba TV sets. There were only a few Samsung sets on display. The one I wanted to buy was out of stock presumably not because it was a hot item, but because of lack of demand. Therefore, I had to place an order to buy a Samsung TV set, which would take about 10 days to arrive at the store to pick up. The salesperson told me, “Sony is back. Customers also buy a TCL that is the same quality as Samsung, but cheaper.” TCL is a low-priced television set made in China.

I was disappointed in this abrupt, radical change. Yet somehow, I knew it would come eventually due to our carelessness and foolishness. For example, instead of being grateful to Samsung for its tremendous contributions to raising the profile of Korea overseas, we incarcerated Lee Jae-yong, head of Samsung, for “dubious charges,” according to his advocates. Instead of encouraging Samsung by awarding it a government medal, our left-wing politicians treat Samsung as if it were a corrupt capitalist evildoer ruthlessly exploiting workers. Meanwhile, Sony is rising again and so are Chinese electronics companies. Yet, we are dormant, not knowing what is happening in the world.

What I saw at the Best Buy store may be a regional phenomenon, and yet it is surely happening. I checked the washer/dryer section and to my relief found Samsung and LG products there still sitting side by side with GE and Whirlpool. However, we do not compete with Japan or China in washers and dryers. The competition is intense in television sets and other electronic devices that heavily depend on semiconductor technology.

We all know the collapse of the real estate bubble caused Japan’s “Lost Decade” from 1991-2001. Nevertheless, some experts argue that deep down there is another reason. According to them, Japan’s “Lost Decade” or “Lost 20 Years” and even “Lost 30 Years” had something to do with Japan’s aggressive “Buying America” spree in the 1980s that prompted US government’s strong defensive measures. At that time, Washington thought that the skyrocketing Japanese economy was a serious threat to the US.

Indeed, Japan purchased many major assets in the US at the time, such as Mobile Oil, Detroit’s auto parts and steel companies, and a luxury hotel in LA. The sense of crisis in America reached its pinnacle when Sony purchased Hollywood’s Columbia Pictures and Mitsubishi bought the Rockefeller Center in New York City in 1989. Indeed, Americans believed that Japan almost bought America at that time. The 1988 movie, “Diehard,” superbly captured the atmosphere at the time. Washington decided to disperse the monopoly of Japanese electronics companies, which gave an excellent opportunity to Samsung and LG.

Now, Washington thinks that the rising Chinese economy and electronics companies are a grave danger to America and thus have begun to exert tough defensive measures once again. Whether China, too, will experience the “Lost Decade” or not, due to America’s hard-hitting policies, we need to wait and see. This time, perhaps Japan or Taiwan, not South Korea, are likely to have a good opportunity because of the situation.

Commentators warn that South Korea could stumble into her own “Lost Decade(s),” just as Japan did three decades ago. The real estate bubble of Korea may collapse at any time on the one hand, and the Korean government’s wrong choice between China and the US will surely result in economic stagnation, on the other. Therefore, South Korea should be extremely cautious and be prepared for the impact of an imminent crash landing.

We do not have the luxury of dozing in these times of unprecedented crisis. We should be alert and awake, closely watching the changes of the world. Otherwise, we will lose our precious accomplishments while we are sleeping. 


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.
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