https://mondediplo.com/2023/07/06koreaSouth Korea is often held up as a model of modern technological capitalism. But daily life for many South Koreans is much harsher than the glossy image projected by its popular culture.
It’s a tired old media trope. When someone questions the virtues of Western liberal democracy, back comes the riposte: ‘Why don’t you try North Korea then?’ The Korean peninsula provides orthodox thinking with a useful comparison to demonstrate the superiority of what it has to offer. The North equals dictatorship, famine and pushcarts; the South, democracy, abundance and semiconductors. The North, repellent communist dreariness; the South, a model worth imitating. Korea was one of the poorest countries on the planet in the 1950s but has since become the world’s 12th largest economy and topped the Bloomberg Innovation Index seven times between 2014 and 2021 (1). So not so much a country, more a miracle.
There is, however, more than one South Korea. There’s the one that fascinates the media, and which can take pride in seeing armies of students learning Korean outside of school. Now that its pop music has conquered the world, this Korea is symbolised by K-pop stars: slender silhouettes, androgynous young faces, international renown and the very latest smartphone clamped to one ear (2) . And then there’s the other South Korea: a country which its own people refer to as ‘Hell Joseon’, after Korea’s rigidly hierarchical ruling dynasty (1392-1910).
‘Let us sleep’
Seoul metro, 6.27am. Three of the people to my left are sound asleep, faces pressed into their hands, heads leaning against the window or slumped forward. The six passengers on the other side of the carriage have also nodded off. They all remain asleep as the train jolts along. Like most Korean workers, they’re exhausted. And it’s unlikely to be due to a night of passion: a 2021 study suggested that one in three inhabitants of the capital had not had sex in over a year (3).
On average, Koreans work 1,910 hours a year, one of the highest rates in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), where the average is 1,716 (1,490 in France, 1,349 in Germany) (4). However, this headline figure obscures the reality of the hours worked by most people in a country that even has a word for death by overwork: gwarosa.
But Koreans still work too little, according to their conservative president Yoon Seok-yeol, who won the narrowest of election victories in 2022. He wants to extend the working week to 69 hours, from the current 52. ‘Employees should be able to work 120 hours a week and then rest as much as they can,’ he said during the presidential campaign (5); 120 hours would mean a 17-hour work day, seven days a week, or a 20-hour day for six days.
‘Businesses simply have no way of meeting client output demands, if workers refuse to work,’ says Kim Ki-moon, chairman of the Korea Federation of SMEs (KBIZ), a group representing the interests of small and medium enterprises (6). ‘Why should the government keep us from having the freedom to work more?’ asked the conservative newspaper Dong-a Ilbo, an unlikely defender of the working class (7).
However, in Korea, most companies simply offer a fixed overtime package, no matter how many extra hours employees put in. Workers know, as must the Dong-a Ilbo, that it’s unlikely that an increase in working hours will result in a significant boost to wages. And few believe the government when it says holiday entitlements could become more generous as the working week lengthens: 60% of Korean employees do not take their full holiday allowance as it is, often because they fear for their jobs (8). Among the demands of the Korean labour movement, there’s one recurrent refrain: ‘Let us sleep!’
Park Chang-jin forced a smile as he spoke, but more than eight years on, his story is clearly still painful. In December 2014 he was cabin manager on a Korean Air flight from New York to Seoul. As the plane taxied for take-off, he heard a first-class passenger shouting at a flight attendant for not serving her nuts on a tray.
Park went to the aid of his colleague, explaining that the regulations obliged airlines to serve pre-takeoff snacks in their packaging, and tried to calm the passenger. Cho Hyun-ah wouldn’t back down, telling them her father was president of the conglomerate that runs Korean Air and demanding that Park and his colleague kneel down and apologise. They obeyed but Cho still insisted that the plane turn back so that Park could be replaced.
Cho served five months in prison for violating aviation safety laws. Park, meanwhile, faced a harassment campaign at work. Eventually, after several years, he resigned. ‘My story reveals something about Korean society, about how the economic elite of this country behaves,’ Park told me. ‘Because, although there’s public awareness of my story, how many people here have experienced something similar in silence?’
It was a protest much like anywhere. Except here the demonstrators were especially careful not to block pedestrian crossings. They were protesting against the proposed extension of the working week to 69 hours. A police van was parked by the stage from where speakers addressed the crowd. A huge digital display behind the van’s cabin read: 85.9; 81.2; 92.7… measuring the decibels produced by the sound system. Here, demonstrations mustn’t exceed 95dB, a volume equivalent to a hairdryer. Going above that limit can mean up to six months in prison.
In June 2022 subcontractors for a shipyard run by Daewoo, one of Korea’s largest companies, went on strike to protest about a 30% salary cut during the pandemic. Over half the workforce in Korea is classed as ‘irregular’. This category includes precarious workers, the nominally self-employed, undocumented workers (particularly numerous in shipyards), and people caught up in cascading subcontracting arrangements that deprive them of the rights and welfare protection that major corporations provide. ‘However, they’re often trained by the big company they work for,’ said Chong Hye-won of the Korean Metalworkers Union (KMWU).
The Daewoo management violently repressed the strikers who occupied the site. President Yoon, who has said strikers are as dangerous as ‘North Korean nuclear threats’ (9), talked of sending in riot police to remove them. ‘He openly expressed the thought that the strike might be illegal,’ Chong recalls.
In Korea, there are countless restrictions on the right to strike. In addition to a prohibition on ‘obstructing business’, punishable by imprisonment, you can only strike against your own employer – a requirement that turns subcontractor arrangements into a shield protecting large corporations. Consequently, ‘being a union leader means at some point going to prison,’ said Yang Kyeung-soo, president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), who received a one-year sentence for organising a strike during the pandemic. His union was set up in 1995, and all 12 of his predecessors have also been jailed.
This being so, the vice-president of the irregular workers’ union at the Daewoo shipyard chose a different approach: he welded a cage measuring one cubic metre and locked himself inside a supertanker hull to draw attention to the mistreatment of workers, following a long Korean tradition of being willing to risk physical harm to oneself to highlight employers’ violence.
Predictably, the company pressured ‘regular’ staff not to support the contract workers, whose demands, they said, threatened the company. This argument carried particular weight as the Korean Development Bank, a public institution, announced it would demand full repayment of all its credit lines from Daewoo if the strike continued – effectively a death sentence. Initially, the workers had demanded compensation for the 30% backpay they had lost, but in the end settled for a 4.5% pay rise, with the promise of future discussions on subcontracting arrangements. The company took legal action against five union leaders, demanding they personally make good the losses of 47bn won (approximately $36.5m) caused by production delays. The individuals targeted were on the minimum wage of around 2m won ($1,550) a month. The courts still have to decide whether the company’s claim is valid. ‘The most likely outcome is that our comrades will have to pay,’ Chong believes.
‘Old people’s work’
No matter how often the question comes up, it’s still a surprise. Even Korean union activists ask: ‘Why do the French want to retire earlier? Here, workers would rather the retirement age went up. Ideally to 73.’ At first, I assumed this was a mistranslation, but it turns out the problem is institutional, not linguistic. The retirement provision here is very different from the system a majority of French people have recently been defending.
In Korea, the official retirement age is 60, but the state pension is only paid from 65. A full pension is around 30% of final salary. Most of the time, this means pensioners are forced into poverty. Therefore, almost all Koreans need to work beyond the legal retirement age in jobs that are so precarious and poorly paid that the Korean expression that most closely equates with ‘bullshit job’ is ‘old people’s work’.
The age at which companies can get rid of their employees is officially 60, but since the mid-2010s, the government has implemented a system that makes older workers’ lives even more difficult. The hierarchical model Korea inherited from Confucianism meant wages increased with an employee’s seniority. However, over the past decade or so, the government has allowed companies to reduce older workers’ wages (generally from around 56) on the pretext of promoting youth employment. As a result, the final years of employment – the ones that matter for pension calculations – bring diminishing salaries, sometimes reduced by as much as a third. Over-65s make up half the country’s poor (10), and South Korea has a staggering suicide rate among the over-80s of 61.3 per 100,000 (almost exactly double the rate for people aged 75-85 in France) (11).
There’s a banner on the front of the Seongbuk City Hall in Seoul that’s part of a campaign to combat the alarming suicide rate among the elderly unemployed, a particular concern among men: ‘If you know a single man over 50, tell your city hall.’
US base at its heart
Kim Sung-han, President Yoon’s national security advisor until March 2023, has a PhD in political science from the University of Texas. The president’s national security deputy, Kim Tae-hyo, has one from Chicago. The secretary for economic security, Wang Yun-jong, has a Yale doctorate in economics. And the minister for unification, Kwon Young-se, got a master’s in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School.
At Seoul airport, US citizens have their own designated immigration channel. Once in the city, they can tune in to a US radio station, The Eagle, which broadcasts from the US base in Itaewon, in the heart of the capital. But most US arrivals drive an hour and a half south to US Army Garrison Humphreys, the US’s largest overseas base, in the Korean city of Pyeongtaek.
Home to over 28,000 soldiers, this city within a city has several elementary schools, a high school, a university, a massive pool with water slides, a cinema, a supermarket and a golf course. Including soldiers’ families and Korean workers, the total population is 43,000. ‘South Korea contributes the equivalent of $1bn a year to support the operation of the base,’ said Hyun Pilkyung, director of the Institute for Reappropriation of American Military Bases. ‘The US military pay the lowest prices for electricity, water, and gas in the country. And when a US soldier commits a crime, they’re dealt with by the base’s own special justice system.’
As the US ’s closest base to China, Camp Humphreys hosts Patriot missile batteries, Apache helicopter squadrons and the most powerful radar. When a U2 surveillance plane takes off from an airbase a few kilometres to the north, the roar of its engines rends the sky. ‘Every time, the walls tremble for kilometres around,’ Hyun told me. Yet there are no police vans measuring the decibels here. That’s because the base is a vital asset for the US military: its existence justifies the US’s efforts to prevent the conflict with North Korea from ending, since peace might mean they have to pack up and leave.
Another remnant of the conflict with the North is that in the event of armed conflict, command of the Korean army falls to the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. As a result, some Koreans wonder whether South Korea is a country with a US base at its heart, or a US base with a country around it.
One of the lucky ones
‘The Korean miracle is right in front of you,’ said Yoon Yong-ju (no relation to the country’s president) welcoming me to his home, a single room approximately three metres square, with a door just 1.3m high. Yoon has had both legs amputated: ‘I’m lucky to live in one of the most comfortable buildings in the neighbourhood. I have a bright and fairly large room.’
We were close to Seoul Station, an area where rents are among the city’s highest, though not in this block, which is part of a shantytown where survivors of the Korean economic miracle have ended up.
At first, it’s hard to believe, but Yoon is right: his accommodation is luxurious compared to the rooms that landlords from Gangnam, one of Seoul’s most affluent districts, rent out here for 190,000 won (approximately $100), a quarter of the allowance the Korean government gives to the poorest. Such rooms measure 1.5×2 metres, lack windows, and are in dilapidated, often unheated buildings.
‘I was working as a digger driver at the time of the Asian financial crisis of 1997,’ Yoon told me. When the IMF imposed a severe austerity programme on Korea, companies took the opportunity to lay off workers and rehire them on short-term contracts. ‘I was made redundant by my company. I quickly fell into poverty and alcoholism.’ Yoon is diabetic, and his addiction eventually led to the loss of his legs. ‘I came to this neighbourhood thinking I’d stay just a few months to sort myself out. It’s been 18 years.’
Around a thousand people live here. ‘They’re all like me,’ Yoon said. ‘They’re not outsiders: they’re people who worked hard to rebuild the country after the war. People who made sacrifices and were abandoned by the state. None of us receive a pension because none of us have made enough contributions.’ Yoon no longer drinks; he paints thanks to the support of a photographer friend. He’s also become the president of the neighbourhood association. ‘We try to maintain contact between residents, so that people retain the will to live. There’s a lot of depression here.’
During his term, President Moon Jae-in increased the allowance given to the poorest Koreans. ‘And instantly the owners of our accommodation raised the rent by the same amount.’
The interpreter who’d been with me for the past few days was perturbed by the call she’d just taken. ‘He didn’t seem at all happy!’ Shortly before, the member of parliament from the governing People Power Party (PPP) whom I was scheduled to meet the next day had sent a message moving our meeting from central Seoul to a different location an hour away. I couldn’t make this and politely suggested doing the interview on email. Lee Jae-young’s next message counter-proposed the following Monday.
The interpreter’s eyes widened when I said I couldn’t make this appointment because of prior commitments. ‘Could you thank him and say I’ll see him on my next trip?’ When her phone rang again, the exchange was brief: ‘Lee Jae-young called the head of the PPP’s international affairs department to tell them you cancelled the interview and may have bad intentions or be hostile to the PPP. The director general just called me. He says you need to send Lee Jae-young an apology in English.’
Rather than an apology, I sent Lee an email a few days later thanking him for his enlightening insights into the relationship between the media and politics in Korea.
‘Is there ink on my hands?’
In late 1945 the Korean left began laying the foundations for a sovereign, democratic state. The surrender of Japan, which had occupied the country since 1910, put it in a position of strength. The process of industrialisation begun by Japan led to the emergence of a working class who saw social issues as bound up with anti-imperialism, while Japan’s ‘attempts to designate all instances of labour unrest as part of a communist plot only served to increase the prestige of the communists,’ as academic Kevin Gray says (12). In 1945 a Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI) was established, led mainly by activists who had been imprisoned and recently released by Japan.
After the Moscow Conference, which in 1945 organised the division of the country, the US authorised a brutal response south of the 38th parallel. The US Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), which took control of the country, dissolved popular organisations, suppressed strikes and called on former collaborators with the Japanese occupation to take the reins of the state. Thereafter, anticommunism – in a form shaped by Washington – ‘became the premier motif for ideological legitimisation of the South Korean state’, according to historian Choi Jang-jip (13).
The suppression of a popular uprising in 1948-49 on the island of Jeju, which the US authorities (and later the dictator Rhee Syngman, whom Washington put in place) accused of being ‘communist’, resulted in over 30,000 deaths, approximately 10% of the island’s population. For years, the country’s jails were full of former ‘partisans’ who had been involved in the struggle for national liberation during the Korean war (1950-53); there they were tortured to try to make them renounce their beliefs.
‘They wanted me to sign a declaration committing myself to the front line in the fight against communism,’ said Ahn Hak-sop, a 94-year-old who spent nearly 43 years in prison. ‘During each torture session, I’d pass out. The first thing I looked at when I woke up was my hands: was there ink on them? Had they tried to put my fingerprints on a false conversion statement? If that happened, I’d have lost everything.’ In the 1980s the dictatorship established a network of ‘re-education’ camps, where over 40,000 ‘delinquents’, most suspected of being communists, were interned.
From 1987 the transition to democracy changed the methods but not the aim: ‘In my primary school,’ said a young activist in his 20s who requested anonymity, ‘we regularly received visits from representatives of the government, intelligence services and even people who’d escaped North Korea. They all came to explain that communism was a threat and we had to do all we could to eradicate it.’
Ppalgaengi (literally, ‘little red’) remains an insult, much like ‘commie’, and is applied to anyone who rejects the South Korea’s socio-economic order. Following the neoliberal turn imposed on the country after the 1997 Asian crisis, simply advocating for society to be organised in a way that is not entirely market-dependent, such as some form of welfare state, can earn someone that label, and that can lead to imprisonment.
The main provisions of a National Security Law (NSL) implemented by Rhee in 1948 remain in place. Article 7 threatens punishment for ‘those who praise, encourage, disseminate or cooperate with anti-state groups’, namely North Korea and its supporters. The South Korean authorities often equate criticising capitalism with supporting Pyongyang. Parties claiming to be communist are banned and Marxism is tolerated only in universities. In a mindset that western television programmes more commonly associate with North Korean totalitarianism than the South Korean miracle, criticising the NSL can itself be considered a violation of the NSL.
‘Is that progress?’
Between October 2016 and March 2017, the Korean population took to the streets to protest against a corruption scandal involving President Park Geun-hye, a mass movement that soon became known as the Candlelight Revolution. The demonstrations led to Park’s impeachment and the election of Moon Jae-in in May 2017. Coming from the Democratic Party, which is less rightwing than the conservatives, Moon embodied hope of a strengthening of democracy. One commitment stood out in particular: ending public sector job insecurity.
‘In Korean, there’s an expression that could be translated as “the torture of hope”,’ said Jin Youngha, a union activist from the KCTU. ‘It means dangling a promise you know won’t be kept. That’s what happened.’ Soon after inauguration, Moon visited Incheon airport near Seoul to meet precarious workers in the public sector and show he meant to keep his word. ‘As often happens, most people were employed by subcontractors, who themselves had fixed-term contracts with the state,’ Jin explained. ‘When a contract ended with subcontractor A, the state signed a new one with subcontractor B – and the employees of A were laid off.’ Since severance pay starts from the 12th month of employment, most contracts last 11 months. ‘During Moon’s visit, some workers cried tears of joy,’ Jin said. ‘And Moon promised to “dry precarious workers’ tears”.’
In reality, Moon compelled subcontractor B to take on subcontractor A’s employees, but working conditions didn’t change. ‘Contracts mostly remain less than 12 months and with each renewal, people are treated as new employees: they acquire no rights,’ Jin explained. ‘Moon did eliminate one form of job insecurity, but he shattered people’s hopes of improved working conditions. Is that progress?’
Day and night, come rain or shine, and even when it snows, they’re there. The crowd passes by, sometimes incredulous, but there they remain, outside the US embassy, activists from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who’ve been taking turns since 2016 to demand the US’s departure, ‘because as long as the Americans are here, Koreans won’t be free.’ Perhaps thereafter things will look up in the ‘Land of Morning Calm’. For now, South Korea’s life force appears to be ebbing: it has the lowest birth rate in the world, with just 0.78 children per woman (14).
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