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Eureka: A fireside chat on Korean contemporary affairs Eureka: A fireside chat on Korean contemporary affairs
by Akli Hadid
2018-04-18 06:58:57
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Three things come to mind when discussing South Korean affairs. Opacity, ranking and obsession with rank and thin-skinned authoritarianism. These three factors are the pillars of what is today's South Korean society at large, and not understanding this can lead to confusion among those dealing with South Koreans.

kore00000001_400Several books have been dedicated to South Korea, a lot of them celebrating its technology, industrial prowess, entertainment industry and cultural quirks. But few understand South Korea for what it is: an opaque society, obsessed with ranks and ranking, where the higher ranked are thin-skinned and authoritarian. The three facts are interrelated. Since South Koreans rank everyone and everything from kindergarten students to university students to universities to companies and schools, there is a great deal of opacity that is built into the South Korean system, because revealing your quirks or your recipe for success can lead to competitors taking over. This obsession with rank also leads to all kinds of psychological tactics to get ahead of the game that I will describe below, from giving the silent treatment to spying to emotional warfare. Once South Koreans get ahead of the game, they tend to have little tolerance for competition and develop thin-skin, shouting down even subtle threats to their rank. In this fireside chat, I will elaborate on psychological warfare tactics, then move to current affairs such as unemployment and the economy, education reform and higher education, migrants and mutliculturalism, conglomerates, the entertainment industry, and finally whether South Korea's miracle economy can endure. 

Psychological warfare

Imagine that as a student you were constantly being ranked from elementary school all the way to graduate school. You were in constant competition with other students, and being ranked at the top nationally would get you entrance to a top-ranked university that would get you entrance at a top-ranked, high-paying company that would get you respect from the rest of society. Now you would keep your study secrets and your notes to yourself, you would shut down competition with deception and treachery and you would use emotional warfare tactics to shut down competition, by wearing your competitors down emotionally.

Now a lot of South Koreans who can afford to send their children to the United States, Canada or Australia where the ranking system is less obvious and where they can get ahead through ambiguous standards. But for those who stay in South Korea, this means having to work with opaque institutions and constantly work under opaque guidelines. The ranking system itself is opaque, and few know the reasons why a person would be at the top while another would be ranked at the bottom.

The implications this has for international trade is that while South Korean companies take advantage of the clear trade guidelines of foreign countries, they maintain opaque guidelines for people who engage in foreign trade. The greatest non-tariff trade barrier is opacity, coupled with lack of trained human resources. The South Korean market is opaque, and any attempts researchers have done clarifying it have been vain. The rules are constantly changing, yet no one knows exactly what the rules are.

Another non-tariff trade barrier is the constant emotional abuse that a lot of people engaging in foreign trade are subject to. One form of emotional abuse comes in the form of punishment when the foreign trader had no idea he or she had done something wrong. Another form of abuse comes in the form of abusive bureaucrats, employees, competitors or partners engage in. Another non-tariff trade barrier comes in the form of guidelines or consumer trends that competitors had spotted yet the press had not shared the trend and had maintained its opaque ways. But as they say, as long as there will be rankings, there will be opacity and psychological warfare. One of my favorite psychological warfare tactics they use is they will give you instructions, watch you fall as you follow their instructions, and then tell you that they had given you a whole different set of instructions. Another psychological warfare tactic is scolding you for several hours for issues that are minor.

Unemployment and the economy

To me, high unemployment rates in South Korea are due essentially to four factors: opacity when it comes to alternative job opportunities, low growth rates among companies who have to lay off workers, the emergence of small and large businesses in ghost towns and finally totalitarian management. Because unemployment rates are as much about the ability to find a job as they are about the ability to retain your job.

Let me go through these four factors individually. Opacity when it comes to alternative job opportunities. South Korea is a rather healthy economy, the kind of economy that is in need of temporary workers, freelance workers, middle men and task-based jobs. Those jobs pay rather well, especially for those requiring educated talent. Many Koreans could easily make a living through alternative task-based jobs. The problem is the high turnover rate when it comes to recruiting and calling such alternative workers, forcing those engaging in alternative work to work full-time at companies or look for a full-time job, even though the economy has more than enough supply of such alternative task-based jobs. Solidifying the alternative job market by easing the opacity would ease the unemployment rate.

Low growth rates among companies. Higher raw material prices, higher transportation and logistics prices, the decline of exports, the loss of a solid base of clients, psychological warfare from clients and competitors along with mismanagement all lead to a lot of companies' growth stalling, meaning that they can either hire less new recruits or have to lay off people altogether. Because lay offs are technically illegal in South Korea, workers tend to be harassed into resignation, meaning they are not even allowed unemployment benefits. Being harassed into resignation in South Korea is a gray zone and is a very difficult case to win in court.

Small and large businesses, government organizations moving to ghost towns. Getting a decent apartment for 500 dollars a month is a sweet deal in South Korea. But you then have to deal with lack of supermarkets, restaurants, pubs, nightlife and you realize that you have to starve. Not to mention the long queues at your company cafeteria and driving long hours to meet clients. Your company thought they got a sweet deal on real estate, only to realize that its staff is going crazy and bubbling with anger. Soon enough employees quit, you have abnormal turnover rates and that means more people looking for jobs, a sane one that is.

Totalitarian management. There's an ocean of books on how to effectively manage your staff. But East Asian totalitarian management is a case study that I would add to management textbooks. Your phone calls are monitored, your computer screen is monitored, your lunch breaks are monitored, your conversations with colleagues are monitored and your life outside the walls of the company can be monitored. Companies have CCTV cameras everywhere, applications to monitor computer screens and there is an entire team dedicated to monitoring the workers. Add opacity, rankings and thin-skinned authoritarianism into the mix and soon enough working for McDonald's sounds like a pretty decent deal and you find the constant smell of frying oil pleasant.

Education reform and higher education

School is where a lot of the opacity, obsession for rankings and ranks and thin-skinned authoritarianism starts. Lectures are delivered in opaque ways on opaque topics and the purpose of the lectures is rarely stated. There is little emphasis on gaining knowledge and skills, a lot of the emphasis is placed on getting good scores at tests and ranking high. Unfortunately tests are unpredictable and test a wide range of knowledge and subjects, meanaing that students whose parents are familiar with the system often start preparing for high school tests in elementary school. Teachers are authoritarian and have thin skin, they often don't tolerate what can be even a hint at questioning their authority.

English education is a hot topic in South Korea. It used to be that companies required English test scores to be submitted with applications, and this meant that those parents who had sent their children to study in English-speaking countries had the advantage. When American-based students came back they often got higher English test scores than their counterparts who had stayed in Korea. meaning they got jobs more easily. That's when parents started complaining about this unfair advantage and English teachers were brought from all sorts of English speaking countries to teach English. In English curriculum planning, again it's opacity and ranking that is emphasized. So a lot of the English teachers did not know what it was that they were supposed to be doing in class, and were often accused of being “unprepared” of “lacking experience” and of “having attitude problems.”

Another facet of education is that it's a lucrative business, because tests tend to test such a wide range of subjects and an endless amount of knowledge. Conglomerates also have tests for employee admission that test a wide range of subjects and an endless amount of knowledge, and so do government jobs. So for many Koreans going to university and private schools is a must, which meant that education was a lucrative business. Unfortunately, with the birthrate declining, education businesses have tended to fold, meaning more unemployed teachers.

Migrants and multiculturalism

Again opacity, thin-skinned authoritarianism and rank applies when dealing with migrants and multiculturalism. There tends to be a preference for white American migrants who get preferential treatment for a lot of jobs in Korea. Migration laws are opaque and change frequently, and migrants are dealt with a great deal of contempt and authoritarianism.

The main issue with migrants is that foreign companies can not hire as many migrants as they wish, and are told they have to hire 5 Koreans for every migrant, placing a great deal of restrictions on human resources. Often such businesses need to employ migrants who are familiar with both their culture and with Korean culture, but restrictions are placed on the hiring of such migrants.

Conglomerates: too big to fail at anything? 

Conglomerates in South Korea. You may have heard of Samsung, LG or Hyundai. They apply the same principles of opacity, rank and thin-skinned authoritarianism. They get to have a say on a lot of the opaque policy making that can make or break small businesses. They rarely tolerate up and coming busineses and want to remain on top, cringing any hint that someone might take over. The main deal with opening up business will be that conglomerates in South Korea tend to be untouchable when it comes to disputes and most people can not win a court case against them.

Entertainment: the limits of creativity

Boy bands and girl bands dancing monochronically to electronic beats and romantic lyrics, romantic comedies and romantic dramas. The problem is a lot of Korean entertainment fans are complaining that they have seen it all. More importantly that a lot of the entertainment industry does not reflect the opacity, obsession with rank and thin-skinned authoritarianism that is prevalent in Korean society. There's a lot of room for creativity, but most attempts at coming up with different themes were met with failed attempts at imitating big budget Hollywood productions. One piece of advice I would give people in the Korean entertainment industry is to work on intriguing viewers, and to give more individual freedom to performers to express themselves and in their interactions with fans. 

The end of the Korean miracle?

What had economically seemed to be an easy ride now seems to be an uphill battle. Of course, Korea is a first world nation with first world problems and does not risk receding into a third world nation in the near future. But the future is clarity and transparency, not opacity. It is individual pursuits and frequent career changes in a constantly evolving world, not rigid rank within rigid organizations. And it is the ability to discuss and constantly seek feedback, not thin-skinned authoritarianism. I'll conclude by saying that I'm not trying to destroy what was so hardly built, I'm trying to help rebuild what seems to be slowly crumbling.


       
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Stuart Jenkinson2018-04-18 17:22:49
Are you back in Korea? I don't know how much longer I'll be here. Fred is coming back for a visit in just over a week. It would be good to see you again.


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