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Eureka: Q & A on South Korea
by Joseph Gatt
2018-01-31 12:25:00
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Question and answer session on contemporary South Korea.

Q: South Korea has not been in the news lately, despite all the talk on North Korea. What is going on in South Korea?

skor01_400_01A: If South Korea has not been in the news that much, it has a lot to do with its thin skin. Articles in the press on South Korea result in angry phone calls from South Korean authorities and other South Korean citizens asking for corrections and apologies. Other than that South Korea is facing dual security and economic concerns. Security concerns tend to be dealt with what I like to call “poking diplomacy” that is they answer security threats with pokes, and once they've poked long enough a dialogue starts. As for the economy, production rates are high and debt rates are high, and South Korea does what it always did, high production to repay high debts, leading to normal growth rates.

Q: Can you elaborate on “thin skin.”

A: The South Korean government tends to be hypersensitive to praise, hypersensitive to criticism and hypersensitive to anyone noticing or commenting on the country.

Q: What about “poking diplomacy.”

A: In most countries when there's a problem directl talks tend to be held. Just like Facebook several years ago where you had a “poke” button, which was used to draw attention without using verbal language or commentary. South Koreans tend to poke until enough poking has been done. They tend to poke in order to be more familiar with the people they will be dealing and negotiating with. South Koreans like to negotiate with people whose public and personal life has few secrets to them so they can be more comfortable.

Q: And on the South Korean economy?

A: High production and high debt. This model is used in South Korea, perhaps Japan being the other country. That is Koreans tend to go into debt, and compensate with high industrial production rates. The production line is not always sold out, but sales help repay the debt and in the short run prevent recessions. The problem now is South Korea needs to work on its addiction to debt. The model of borrow, produce, borrow, produce, borrow, produce can lead to serious financial consequences if production sales don't keep up.

Q: President Moon Jae In was elected in May. Any signs of change under his administration?

A: The tendency is still thin-skinned authoritarianism. President Moon is likeable enough, but President Park Geun Hye in many ways tried to same public relations campaign of adopting puppies and visiting crowded markets. The difference is President Moon frequently communicates with the media, when President Park did not give interviews.

But the tendency in South Korea is still authoritarianism, the thin-skinned version of it. A lot of South Korean leaders still behave like A-list Hollywood stars, that is focus exclusively on their image, achievements and legacy, when their mission is technically to get their department or field to work.

Q: There's a lot of talk about education reform. How can education reforms work?

A: My advice to the South Korean government is you have to be very clear about what the goals of education reform are. To me, there are three main problems with education: Koreans spend way too much money on education, the educatoin curriculum is not practical and the third problem is there is too much focus on discipline and not enough focus on learning. The three problems are interrelated.

Let me elaborate. About a third of GDP is spent on education expenses. The government needs to find ways to gradually lower the proportion of money Koreans spend on private education. If you act in immediate ways, thousands lose their jobs which is not good for the economy. So the idea is to gradually shift from private education to something else. Korea has not yet seized the golden opportunity to remind Koreans that a Seoul National University education no longer guarantees much of anything.

As for practical learning, a lot of the curriculum is dry and does not include practical learning experiences. It's all memorizing facts and there's little or no practical use of the facts. So perhaps Korea needs to move from a notional to a functional curriculum. Finally, the education system values discipline over learning. That is if you behave well and memorize facts you succeed. That's not how things work in real life.

Q: Final question. What is South Korea's role in solving the North Korean crisis?

A: South Korea has been using poking diplomacy for years. Poke, poke, poke and when you've poked long enough you come to the negotiating table. Remember when in high school you would stare at your crush and when they stared back you would look away. That's kind of how diplomacy with North Korea is dealt with. Now we all know there were the high school rock star football players who would stop the staring game and yell “if you have a crush on her than date her!” That's kind of the role the Americans are playing right now. We'll see how much longer the parties involved in the North Korean case will tolerate this endless game of inter-Korean poking diplomacy.

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