The state south of the 38th parallel has often been characterised by the axiom “from rags to riches.” This is a country whose fame has become associated with its exports of cuisine, film, and K-pop, but South Korea has also become the poster child of how to beat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Rapid testing and tracing allowed Seoul to respond with considerable alacrity as the coronavirus pandemic effervesced and diffused from its north-western neighbour, China. The South Korean government stayed alert. While London dithered over lockdown implementation, easing, and a possible return to normality, there was no such lockdown in the “land of the morning calm.”
On 15 April, South Korea held parliamentary level elections, to which 30 million voters turned out, clad in masks, and with rigorous social distancing. Cafés and restaurants remained open, and the recent re-emergence of Covid cases have been tackled with remarkable swiftness.
Despite praise for its tackling of Covid-19, the incumbent liberal administration of President Moon Jae-in, in power since May 2017, has received mixed reviews for its policy of engagement with its totalitarian counterpart and adversary to the north. The Korean War remains unfinished, technically-speaking, with only an Armistice – not a peace treaty – bringing a ceasefire in 1953. Yet, although President Moon’s approval ratings have soared with Seoul’s effective handling of Covid, South Korea’s apparent successes mask a highly complex society where tensions linger.
Inter-Korean relations is one concern, which is not limited to the realm of high-power politics. The South is home to over 30,000 North Korean refugees; for many individuals resettlement is far from easy, not least given discrimination and financial hardships.
South Koreans are not free from xenophobic sentiment, not least towards their Chinese and North Korean neighbours. Moreover, whilst the South Korean public showed faith in the government – and vice versa – in the face of coronavirus, there is a much greater public apathy towards questions of inter-Korean unification, and how to deal with its northern counterpart, especially amongst the younger generation.
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When I asked a South Korean university student for their thoughts on the North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile launch on 4 July 2017, the response was startling: “Did something happen?”
At the same time, for a country praised for its rigorous educational attainments, such pressure has its costs, not least on mental wellbeing. High school pupils are trained to “reach for the SKY”, an acronym referring to the three best universities nationwide: Seoul National, Korea University, and Yonsei. Late-night cramming schools may be costly, and even violate local curfew regulations, but a high-intensity work ethic has become a social norm in South Korean society. As a South Korean mother said to me on one of my visits to Seoul: “I have to give my son extra lessons; everybody else does so.”
Nevertheless, youth unemployment is rife, reaching over 12% in 2016, before declining to 10% in June 2019: to where does educational success lead? South Korean university students may accumulate hard-earned degrees but are unable to utilise them effectively in future employment.
Corruption is far from a relic of the past. Family-run conglomerates, or chaebol, are anything but immune from being guilty of embezzlement, tax evasion, and collusion with the government, as well as unfair governance and selection procedures. The infamous scandal of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye in 2016 also involved the chaebol of Samsung, whose vice-chairman was charged with extracting favours from the then government which would bolster his own position.
There is also a problem of an ageing population. It is a challenge not unique to South Korea by any means, but in South Korea over-65s comprise 15% of a population of just over 51 million, and this proportion is only set to increase. Furthermore, the low fertility rate, falling to 0.92 births in 2019 despite numerous incentives from the South Korean government, only predicts a bleak economic future.
A concoction of social and economic factors is brewing; add to this melange an obsession with social conformism and individual achievement, and there remains much progress to be made by South Korean society.
A high suicide rate for under-25s exacerbates societal tensions. Indeed, despite the bright lights, technological innovations, and well-established middle class, South Korean society remains Confucian – and patriarchal – at its core. Filial piety remains of precious value, and undergirds much of South Korea’s other woes. Working-age adults are expected to care for their elderly parents, and the question of not attending university remains asked only in the hearts and minds of South Korean youth. Is a social implosion brewing? Not quite, but only time will tell.
A common metaphor seems to prevail amongst British expatriates in South Korea, and South Koreans living in the UK: South Korean society is akin to a jacket that cannot be tailored or altered; one either fits into the mould or remains an outsider. If you are the latter, the social stigma should not be underestimated.
Although the Covid peak may have been flattened, and rapid economic transformation in the 1980s allowed South Korea to go “from rags to riches” in the blink of an eye, there remains a long and difficult road ahead. The “land of the morning calm” is anything but, and no, the problems are not just about tensions north of the 38th parallel.