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Wednesday, January 14, 1998 Published at 18:26 GMT

World: Analysis

Koreans give up their gold to help their country
image: [ Eight tonnes of gold was collected in the first week ]
Eight tonnes of gold was collected in the first week

South Korea has exported the first shipment of 300 kilograms of gold collected in a public campaign to help the country out of its economic crisis. The nationwide campaign - led by large business groups including Daewoo, Samsung and Hyundai - began on January 5, and involved ordinary Koreans donating personal gold treasures, which have been melted down into ingots ready for sale on the international markets. Kate Liang looks at the phenomenon of public self-sacrifice to save an economy in trouble:

It's an extraordinary sight: South Koreans queuing for hours to donate their best-loved treasures in a gesture of support for their beleaguered economy.

Housewives gave up their wedding rings; athletes donated medals and trophies; many gave away gold "luck" keys, a traditional present on the opening of a new business or a 60th birthday.

The campaign has exceeded the organisers' expectations, with people from all walks of life rallying around in a spirit of self-sacrifice. According to the organisers ten tons of gold were collected in the first two days of the campaign.

But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the campaign is not the sums involved, but the willingness of the Korean people to make personal sacrifices to help save their economy. The managing director of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, who has just completed a visit to Seoul, was clearly moved by the campaign, calling it "admirable".

There have been other indications that Koreans are willing to work together to face their economic difficulties: Korea's traditionally militant labour unions have announced that they are willing to join a consultative body which is being set up to discuss the possibility of job losses alongside employers and politicians.

But the spirit of self-sacrifice has not, it seems, been extended to foreign workers, with many migrant labourers now facing the threat of being sent home. And there is now a stigma attached to taking holidays abroad, or buying foreign-made luxury products. Some worry that an anti-foreign backlash will become more pronounced in South Korea as economic hardship starts to bite.

[ image: Koreans queued at dozens of collection stations]
Koreans queued at dozens of collection stations
And it isn't clear how effective the gold campaign will actually be. Organisers estimate that South Koreans privately hold around $20 billion dollars worth of gold - that's roughly one third of the money South Korea owes the International Monetary Fund in bailout loans. But compared with some estimates of South Korea's total foreign debt, even such huge figures seem little more than a drop in the ocean.

Yet there is one aspect of the gold campaign, and other demonstrations of public willingness to make sacrifices, on which most analysts agree. At a time when many Koreans feel their fate is in the hands of global organisations such as the IMF and international speculators and investors, donating a valued family heirloom may perhaps lessen the feelings of helplessness which many experienced as the extent of the crisis began to sink in.

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