I Will Work Harder

South Korea is determined to rebuild its economy, but it’s the country’s soul that is scarred.

Bogwansa Buddhist Temple, East Paju, Republic of Korea
Photo by by sladewalters on Flickr

In South Korea the economy is seen to be recovering, but that is just one part of the process of healing from the economic crisis. The psychological side of the crisis is rarely discussed. It defies diminution into growth rates and statistics. There are deep, difficult to detect scars on the South Korean people. The country has an extensive history of tragedy that has never been thoroughly addressed. It suffered through colonial occupation and a brutal civil war. It remains divided.

By nearly any measure, South Korea’s economic development has been stunningly successful. It’s gone from being one of the world’s poorest countries 50 years ago to one of its richest today. It boasts multiple internationally competitive companies and a strong domestic market.

The country’s government and major financial institutions are forecasting a healthy growth rate of 5% for next year. In our economic analysis, we have come to rely mainly on figures that indicate the health of elite institutions. With some celebrating the end of the crisis, recovery has yet to trickle down to many regular people. Unemployment is still a huge issue. According to the state-run agency Statistics Korea, 2009 will see the biggest one-year decline in youth employment since 1998, when the total number of jobs fell 598,000 from the previous year. Much of South Korea’s recovery can be attributed to government stimulus plans. When that money runs out next year there will be a real possibility of a double-dip recession. Given the government’s fiscal situation, there will be no funds available for another stimulus package.

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak is nicknamed “the bulldozer.” Before entering politics he was the CEO of Hyundai’s construction division, and he retains close ties to the industry. It’s therefore unsurprising that much of the government’s stimulus package has been comprised of new construction projects. South Korea is already one of the world’s most developed countries. Little is accomplished by piling concrete over concrete and steel on steel.

The economy is not the problem – it’s not what holds the country back from taking the more influential global position it craves. Material comforts have failed to bring full happiness to this country. South Koreans work longer hours than people in any other OECD country. The country’s education system is arguably the most demanding in the world, placing young people under massive pressure.

The South Korean concept of success is narrow: a degree from one of a few elite universities, employment at a major corporation, marriage to a tall, thin spouse with large eyes and a small face.

Figure skater Yu-na Kim and South Korean female pop groups have enjoyed massive popularity over the past year, according to a report by Samsung Economic Research Institute. As opportunities vanish, South Koreans have retreated into the illusion of fame. The example of celebrity shows it is possible to thrive amid misery.

The nation was shaken on May 23, 2009, when former President Roh Moo-hyun threw himself off a cliff near his home in the country’s mountainous south. He had been implicated in a corruption scandal that involved his friends and associates. His death would have been even more shocking had it been exceptional. In spite of an avowed Confucian aversion to the practice, South Korea has the highest suicide rate of the OECD countries. It takes place disproportionately among those who make it to the top of South Korean society.

These topics are rarely breached in the media or in polite conversation. South Korea is a country where blunt expression is dangerous, lest the fragile sentiments of those within earshot be offended. It is then routinely the speaker who is held at fault, regardless of the content of their statement. There was uproar in the fall of 2009 when a 20-year-old university student said during a television talk show she thought that men shorter than 180cm were “losers.” The comment became a national controversy. Men claimed great psychological damage across the country. Repeated attempts were made to punish the young woman under South Korean law.

It is expected that a recovered economy will cure all. But it is the other areas of society that need attention. For a real recovery to take place, South Koreans need to broaden the scope of how the country’s health is determined. Full recovery will not be found in improving GDP figures, but in more attention to the neglected sides of existence: art, culture and time to think.

The Korean concepts of yeolsimhi (work your hardest) and ballee ballee (hurry, hurry) are called upon during difficult times. Koreans are determined to improve the current crisis with more of the same.

The diligent but simplistic Boxer in Orwell’s Animal Farm faces every challenge with the mantra “I will work harder.” He eventually collapses from overwork.

Steven Borowiec is a writer based in Seoul. More of his work can be found at www.stevenborowiec.blogspot.com