The Dark Side of South Korea’s Incredible Economic Success: the harmful impact of South Korea’s industrialisation on its culture and people

“The Dark Side of South Korea’s Incredible Economic Success” (Explained with Dom, 1 June 2022)

In the space of ten minutes, the Explained with Dom Youtube channel manages to dissect an entire culture and its values, and how this culture developed over the past 60 years into one of the most dysfunctional societies in the world. In the 1950s, thanks in no small part to the Korean War in the early years of the decade, and before that decade, 40 years of Japanese colonial occupation, South Korea was one of the poorest nations in the world. In the early 1960s, the South Korean government embarked on an industrialisation project that transformed the nation’s economy from a mainly agricultural one to one based on export-oriented manufacturing. Over the decades, South Korea became noted for its shipbuilding, car manufacturing and electronics industries. In the early 21st century, South Korea is considered one of the world’s most technologically advanced and socially developed nations. The people are highly educated. At the same time, South Koreans are among the unhappiest people in the world, with some of the longest working hours in the developed world, a high elder poverty rate and a high suicide rate among young people due to many factors (a brutally competitive and stressful education system from kindergarten to high school, poor job prospects, a housing crisis in metropolitan Seoul where most Koreans live).

Explained with Dom fingers one cause of the problem: in the 1960s, the South Korean government favoured developing the nation’s economy by showering a few hand-picked families with loans, tax breaks, subsidies and other financial support to run the companies (and then the corporations) that would bring the economic growth the government wanted. These families and their company networks became the chaebol who have long dominated the South Korean economy. As the chaebol corporations expanded their operations through vertical and horizontal integration, their need for labour changed from unskilled factory-floor labour to people with technical and engineering skills and knowledge. The South Korean government began promoting education, especially education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. At the same time, the chaebol-dominated corporations stressed a culture based on loyalty and dedication to the company, hard work and long hours.

The combination of government and corporate propaganda, combined with traditional Confucian respect for education and scholarship and emphasis on obedience to one’s elders, has produced a highly competitive culture of people obsessed with education and working long hours. At the same time, the extreme work ethic has generated a high level of stress and unhappiness: the education system has become so competitive that even the early years of school are extremely competitive. Parents put their children into private tuition after school to gain an edge over other students. This continues all the way into the high school years. Every year Korean universities graduate thousands of highly educated undergraduates who then have to compete for a limited number of jobs that can actually use their qualifications. Unique to South Korea, college graduates are more likely to be unemployed than those who have not been to college and the government has had to initiate a program to help college graduates find employment abroad. At the same time, Korean college graduates spurn blue collar jobs because they have been told these are low paying and beneath them, with the resulting paradox of vacancies in trade jobs at the same time 40% of college graduates are unemployed.

One odd sign of dysfunction is the surprisingly low levels of worker productivity, in a culture that prizes working hard and working long hours. It turns out that once college graduates do get jobs, usually in a chaebol-owned organisation, they find themselves in a hierarchical work culture where loyalty to the company counts for more than the quality of the work they do and the results they get.

The video concludes by noting the effects of the culture that has built up over 60 years on the Korean people: a desperately unhappy people with a high suicide rate and high levels of depression and other mental illness. The video could have noted that the nation also suffers from a high infertility rate that can be attributed in part to the impact that long working hours have on family life and the unwillingness perhaps of Koreans to impose what they experienced on any children they may have. The need for Koreans to live close to the capital Seoul results in high housing densities that fuel the high property price rises and force people to live in apartments that discourage three generations of the same family to live under the same roof. Koreans are not able to care for their elderly parents as they used to do, and this is one reason among others (lack of education, shortage of jobs appropriate for their level of skills, competing with young people for work, need for cheap accommodation, low paying pensions and an inadequate social welfare net) a high proportion of elderly people end up in poverty.

Although the video is short and ends quite abruptly, it does identify the underlying problem: the economy has been shaped (and accordingly, an entire society and its people have also been shaped) by the needs and demands of the chaebol and the families that own them. The families wield considerable political power and influence government economic policy. Any change or reforms that would benefit the Korean public but threaten the power and wealth of the chaebol families will be resisted by these families. If South Korea is to survive and thrive in the 21st century, it will have to acknowledge that the oppressive culture that has developed over the past 60 years and which served the agendas of authoritarian governments and the coterie of families who benefited financially, must be rejected for a culture that values people for what they are, and not treat them as machines.