South Korea: The Paradox on the Han River

August 31, 2022 The Asia Foundation
South Korea: The Paradox on the Han River
Show Notes Transcript

After beating a path to postwar prosperity that’s been the envy of Asia and the world, South Korea suddenly finds itself in a profound malaise, with plummeting birthrates and a generation of disaffected youth who call their country “hell.”  Read the full blog by our Country Representative Kwang Kim. 

Kwang Kim (00:03):

You really cannot understand Korea without accepting that there are two paradoxical realities at the same time. It is both a global economic and cultural success like no other, at the same time it's a place where there is a diminishing sense of hope among the young generation.

John Rieger (00:21):

Is the Korean Miracle leaving a generation behind? The paradox on the Han River, this week on InAsia, from the Asia Foundation. I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (00:29):

And I'm Tracy Yang. After beating a path to post-war prosperity that's been the envy of Asia in the world, South Korea suddenly finds itself in a profound malaise with plummeting birth rates and a generation of disaffected youth who call their country hell. Is there a solution?

John Rieger (00:45):

Joining us today to talk about Korea's improbable journey from growth to gloom is Kwang Kim. He's The Asia Foundation's country representative in Korea and the author of The Paradox On The Han River, in this week's InAsia blog. Kwang Kim, welcome to InAsia.

Kwang Kim (01:01):

Thank you. Glad to be here.

Tracie Yang (01:02):

So Kwang, Korea is often referred to as The Miracle on the Han River. Why is that?

Kwang Kim (01:08):

Well, the phrase refers to South Korea's very rapid development from a war-torn country in 1950s, to one of the richest countries in the planet and one of the most successful, pretty much in a single generation. The Han River divides North and South of Seoul, the capital, where much of the Korean Miracle took place.

John Rieger (01:31):

In addition to its economy, Korea's international cultural influence has also grown enormously.

Kwang Kim (01:36):

The growth and demand of Korean culture on the world has been just spectacular, in the form of K-pop music, film, dramas, fashion and beauty, and even comic books, which start in the 1990s.

John Rieger (01:52):

I keep seeing these Korean memes that make me feel like I'm not cool enough.

Kwang Kim (01:58):

It makes all of us feel not feel cool enough. The Korean culture force is quite spectacular.

Tracie Yang (02:04):

And yet the surveys since 2015, show that many young Koreans view their country as hell and want to immigrate. You described this as a crisis of hopelessness.

Kwang Kim (02:18):

Yes, it's both successful, and at the same time, there are signs of hopelessness among the youth about the rigid life of Korean students working from down to midnight only to see that many of their older peers were not getting the best schools or getting the best jobs. And the last year's real estate crisis in Korea also created a big sense that no matter how hard you work, there's not much of a future. And this is exacerbated by the recent scandals of the privileged people cutting corners to get into the top universities. And that touches a deep sensitivity among the young generation.

Tracie Yang (02:56):

You just mentioned some of the groundbreaking films that come out of Korea and I think Parasite is a really great reflection of that hopelessness.

Kwang Kim (03:05):

Parasite is a great example. This family who are very underprivileged, trying to wiggle through the high society. So the theme of class is very prevalent in Korean culture these days.

John Rieger (03:18):

Tell us about the so called, N-po generation.

Kwang Kim (03:21):

This is a new term in Korea. It started before as a variation of the Sampo generation, Sam meaning three, or generation that gives up three things in life: dating, marriage, and children. As more things were added, it became N, N-po, for numerous things, including home, hobbies and human relations. So...

John Rieger (03:44):

They're giving up everything, an N number of things.

Kwang Kim (03:47):

Yes, there is a overall sense of despair and this is probably the best manifested in the social media, where there's anonymity. And if you see these anonymous discussion boards where this incredible amount of anger.

John Rieger (04:05):

This might be a good place to talk about the declining Korean birth rate.

Kwang Kim (04:09):

Yes, Korean birth rates have been declining drastically from a million babies per year in 1970s, to about 260,000 last year. So this has been a dramatic decline. It has one of the lowest birth rates in the world and from a societal and economic point of view, it's going to put huge pressure on the pension system and government system in the future. There's a huge generational antagonism between the old and the young, and this is creating all kinds of issues for Korea. It's a bit of a time bomb.

Tracie Yang (04:41):

So this is what you call the paradox on the Han River. Is the Korean Miracle a dazzling global success story, or a special kind of hell for the young?

Kwang Kim (04:50):

You really cannot understand Korea without accepting that there are two paradoxical realities at the same time. It is both a global economic and cultural success like no other, at the same time it's a place where there is a diminishing sense of hope among the young generation. Everyone, pretty much, here is aiming at the so-called SKY universities, S-K-Y, the acronym for Seoul National University, Korea University, Yonsei University, while very few get in. Then everyone who graduates applies to very few companies, so it's a pyramid system with very harsh consequences you feel along the way. An analogy may be helpful. I travel around the world for development work, and I often found that driving experience in local cities and local roads to be a proxy of opportunities in society. For example, in the U.S., if you miss an exit, there are many chances to get back in track, in Korea, in Seoul, if you miss an exit, you are in big trouble.

Tracie Yang (05:54):

So what are those exits that some people can miss?

Kwang Kim (05:58):

It's throughout the rights of passage of growing up since kindergarten, getting into the best kindergarten, then elementary schools and then middle school, high school. And of course the big exam to get into the top universities. And then after that, getting into the best companies. So that's the first 30 years of your life is brutal, and there are many, many opportunities to miss in any point.

Tracie Yang (06:21):

So you've painted a pretty harsh portrait of contemporary Korea, but in your essay this week, you mentioned that you came home to Korea in 2018 after much international experience, and you found areas of intense vitality in the culture as well.

Kwang Kim (06:37):

Absolutely. And this was one of the most pleasant and refreshing surprises, to see what was happening in certain neighborhoods and clusters in Seoul. For example, in Seongsu-dong, also known as the Brooklyn of Seoul, as well as Pangyo Valley, was Koreans' Silicon Valley, the suburbs of Seoul. I had a dinner with a group of entrepreneurs and it was so different than other meetings with corporate and government leaders. These entrepreneurs were visionaries and very pragmatic at the same time and I could see their energy shaping the future of Korea.

John Rieger (07:13):

That's an exciting prospect, but is it enough? Or are there other structural problems that are making people feel locked out of their own future?

Kwang Kim (07:23):

Let me put my development hat here and say that once a country has achieved a certain level of development, it is nearly impossible to return to previous levels of growth. So unlike developing countries that grow with underused capital labor, Korea now needs to grow with innovation. And there are also structural problems, that you mentioned, that Korea needs to address, including an industry structure and corporate governance that concentrates power and large companies squeezing profits and ideas from smaller suppliers. So the current economic model fundamentally does not take into account younger people and the future generation, but exists for the benefit of existing interest. The young people are priced out of the real estate market and there are not enough jobs that society expects them to achieve. So of course, younger people feel locked out.

John Rieger (08:14):

In your essay this week, you write that South Korea needs a new social contract. What do you mean by that?

Kwang Kim (08:21):

Well, social contract is a relationship between the government and citizens. In the 1960s and 70s, in Korea and South Korea, there was an implicit social contract between the government who provided rapid development, while society accepted some cost in individual liberties. That was until the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in late 1970s. In 1980s and 90s, South Korea transitioned from an authoritarian government to democracy. Today, the country has fundamental conviction in constitutional democracy, which is not a small thing, no matter which party is in power. Very few countries outside the Western hemisphere can claim this level of commitment to democratic values. However, economic growth and democracy is not enough in today's Korea. A third element is needed, which I call mutuality. Growth and democracy without mutuality is leaving many, especially the young, frustrated. So a new Korean social contract based on growth, democracy and mutuality needs to be developed by Koreans.

John Rieger (09:30):

Asia Foundation country representative, Kwang Kim, thank you for joining us today.

Kwang Kim (09:34):

It was great to be with you.

Tracie Yang (09:36):

And that's our show for this week. Kwang has written in greater detail about Korea's paradoxical predicament in this week's InAsia blog. It's a fascinating analysis.

John Rieger (09:45):

And be sure to join us next time, when we'll meet an impressive group of young men and women who are applying their remarkable talents to solving 21st century problems. Until then, I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (09:55):

And I'm Tracy Yang.

John Rieger (09:57):

Thanks for listening.