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A people's history of 21st century South Korea A people's history of 21st century South Korea
by Joseph Gatt
2019-04-30 07:15:05
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I would categorize Korean people's history since 2000 in three broad phases: the information technology age between 2000 and 2007, then the globalization phase between 2007 and 2014, and finally, the sex, drugs and rock n'roll phase between 2014 and today. Three symbolic events mark each phase: the invention of Korea's predecessor of Facebook, Cyworld in 1999, Ban Ki Moon's election as Secretary General of the United Nations in 2007, and the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry in April 2014.

Phase I: The information technology phase

In 1997, South Korea's economy turned into disaster. The IMF bailed out the Korean economy, with a record loan of 60 billion dollars, but Korea had to make several structural changes to the economy. As Korea liberated its economy, South Korea led the world in information technology.

skorea01_400And lead the world in information technology it did. Almost every South Korean had a cell phone in 2000, almost every South Korean had internet access, internet connection rates were among the fastest in the world. South Korea had several search engines that all had a fair share of the market: Naver, Daum, Paran, Nate, Joins were the most popular. And almost every South Korean between the ages of 13 and 40 had a “Cyworld” account. Cyworld was a type of Facebook that started in 1999, where people uploaded pictures and left comments on each other's walls. Internet chat rooms became popular, and businesses were sure to thrive if they advertised online.

South Korea launched software for several uses. Digital photography may not have been invented in Korea, but Koreans were the first to widely use it. Cell phones did not have the Internet built in, but did allow access to Cyworld accounts, including posting pictures on your Cyworld account. Everything from messaging apps to word processors were invented and in large use, and South Korea was the first country to popularize internet applications way back in 2000.

Restaurants and pubs started springing up and setting up online communities, and your pub was sure to thrive if you had positive reviews online. Flat screens were found in Korea before anywhere else, and in the 2002 presidential election, South Korea was the first country ever where an election was decided by an online campaign. President Roh Moo Hyun, a progressive who was an outsider, was elected by mobilizing the youth vote online.

There were two revolutions that never really happened in South Korea: online payment, and trying to sell information technology abroad. China and Japan, Korea's closest neighbors, were no big fans of information technology, and the European and North American markets for information technology tended to be divided, when such divisions were unknown to the South Korean market.

Between 2000 and 2007 fortunes were made in information technology, Koreans had a great deal of hope as to how fortunes could be made. Online lectures and cyber universities existed in Korea before almost anywhere else, and were widely used compared to other countries. Video streaming was popular before YouTube, and cyber security was more developed in Korea than in any part of the world.

However, older Koreans complained about the job market being saturated for them. The information technology economy mainly benefiting people under 30, most companies, using Korea's rigid logic, simply did not hire anyone above 30. That meant people over 30 had few other alternatives than starting restaurants or pubs, or perhaps working at smaller industrial companies.

Information technology also meant that Korea, once an industrial powerhouse, was losing industrial steam. While a few industries made their millions by making good use of the Internet and information technology, by 2007, there were too many industries competing for a share of the market by using information technology. That meant a lot of industries would fold almost as quickly as they started, and South Korea became a graveyard for industry, also being a graveyard for small businesses.

Between 2000 and 2007 Korea was also a country of “long legs.” Korea was one big family, where almost everyone knew almost everyone else. Social networks were clearly defined and categorized, and Koreans knew that in order to be successful they had to know a lot of people. And to know a lot of people they had to join as many organizations as they could. Political organizations, Churches, Buddhist temples, universities, and social organizations all sprang up, and Korean people always knew someone who belonged to such or such organization.

Since belonging to a university was key to gain a social network and socialize, thus made finding a job and contacts easier, 80% South Koreans of any given age were attending university. The figure was 50% in 2000, and rose to 80% until 2014, before gradually falling to 70%. Universities made their millions, and universities made sure everyone knew everyone else by organizing constant events and encouraging students to socialize.

But as the market for information technology started becoming saturated, and companies could no longer be sure to be successful by making good use of information technology, Koreans all realized the next step was to export, invade foreign markets, as local markets were saturated.

Phase II: Globalization phase (2007-2014)

Ban Ki Moon was elected Secretary General of the United Nations in 2006 and was inaugurated on January 1, 2007. By then, Koreans all had one word in mind: we need to export. And in order to export, we need to speak good English.

Until 2007, only small Korean elite spoke English. Few Koreans spoke Chinese, and while many Koreans spoke Japanese, they did not brag about the latter fact. A small elite spoke French, a tiny minority of Koreans spoke Spanish, and you had to dig deep to find a Korean who spoke any other language.

Until 2007, only conglomerates and a handful of corporations exported. Few corporations even thought about joining foreign markets or doing business with foreign people. But in 2007, historians started becoming revisionist. While exports and education were always highly regarded by Korean society, exports and education were never in the DNA or Korean society. Yes the Korean elite tutored their children, yes tutors were paid vast portions of money, but the education budget or education fever never amounted to much until the 1990s. Exports were also marginal, as only a handful of companies engaged in exports. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Korea could not export simply because of geography. Korea had no formal relations with the Communist states to the East, and other nations near Korea were simply too poor for Korea to export anything.

So globalization was the word Koreans were obsessed with. Language schools started springing up everywhere, signs were put in English (although many of them were funny) everywhere, and up to 60,000 English teachers were imported to teach English between 2007 and 2014. Companies bragged about finding foreign export partners, potential export partners were pampered and treated to high cuisine and lavish gifts so they could entice foreigners to buy their products in bulk, and all kinds of international festivals were organized to bring in as many foreigners as possible.

Foreigners were brought to television programs which had record audiences so Koreans could learn about foreign cultures and mannerisms. Foreign restaurants slowly started springing up, and many coaches were offering very expensive courses to learn how to deal with foreigners. Such courses tended to deal exclusively with American culture, and anything “foreign” was often misunderstood as being “American.”

Before 1992, Koreans were not allowed to travel abroad, except for business or immigration purposes. While the overseas travel ban was lifted in 1992, between 1992 and 2007 most Koreans only traveled overseas once: for their honeymoon. Starting in 2007, Korean universities organized student exchange programs with foreign universities (mainly American universities) and starting 2007 Korea was encouraging students to take a year or two off to study English (usually in Australia or the Philippines) and Korean students complained that students at such overseas English study programs were all Korean.

Some Korean companies made their millions from exports, but then again, starting 2011 or 2012, the export market was saturated. Many countries had similar export-driven policies and Korea was competing with similar products. I remember in 2007 when as a foreigner I was exposed everywhere, before starting in 2011 Koreans would try to prevent people from seeing me. Foreigners were welcome in 2007, by 2011, no longer welcome.

One industry that did successfully export was the entertainment industry. The other one was the smartphone industry. All other industries stagnated when it came to exports. The Korean entertainment industry took the world by storm, and K-pop and K-dramas had their load of fans. Unfortunately, most K-pop and K-drama fans are housewives and young female students, not the kind to influence the decisions of companies when it comes to importing Korean products.

The globalization phase came to a halt on April 16, 2014 when the Sewol Ferry sank, one of Korea's biggest national tragedies. In 2014 started a new phase: the sex, drugs and rock n'roll phase.

Phase 3: (2014-present) the sex, drugs and rock n'roll phase

Until 2014, sex, drugs and rock n'roll existed in Korea, but they were marginal. Romantic love tended to be valued over one night stands, ballads tended to be valued over rock n'roll, and drugs were very, very marginal. Any politician or businessman caught cheating on his wife was sure to lose his job, and drugs were just unheard of.

The atmosphere at universities tended to be studious and Koreans tended to be ambitious until 2014. Koreans wanted to work, wanted to help export, wanted to help pull their country forward. But starting 2014, Koreans no longer wanted to rigid life that was imposed on them, and rebelled.

Until 2014 life in Korea was simple. You got a job, got married, hoped you could keep your job until retirement. You worked hard on the job, tried to make sure you would not be ostracized on the job, and deferred to authority.

But Korea's elite started engaging in a sex, drugs and rock n'roll lifestyle that shocked their Korean employees, who once viewed their CEOs as gods. Korean CEOs started spending lavishly, competing against other CEOs for who would have the most lavish lifestyle. CEOs no longer had the welfare of the company in mind, and wanted to engage in the finer pleasure in life.

Like actor Scott Baio once said, once girls start sleeping with you, you just assume that any girl is going to want to sleep with you. Korean CEOs and the Korean elite basically started behaving like that, assuming just about everyone would kneel down to them. All kinds of abuses from CEOs, their families, and the Korean elite were reported, and Korean CEOs assumed that their staff would provide just about anything they demanded.

Koreans rebelled, quit their jobs, dropped out of university (dropping out of university was once almost unheard of) and lived a life of partying like there's no tomorrow when they could. Relations among Koreans became toxic, and new scandals involving sex, drugs and rock n'roll emerge every day.

The divorce rate reached record highs, students started dropping out of high school (once unheard of) and Koreans started living like there's no tomorrow.

Part IV: Where is Korea headed?

From the information technology revolution to globalization to sex, drugs and rock n'roll. Korea now needs to use its assets wisely. Today's economy is a service economy, one based on services delivered on a small scale. Unfortunately Korean companies prefer hiring people rather than referring to small service providers.

Wider access to the service economy would enable smaller entrepreneurs to live off their services, and would not burden people with finding a job.

Another revolution that seems not to have penetrated to Korean consciousness: the environmental revolution. Environmental-friendly products are the new trend in many parts of the world; however Koreans don't seem to have taken this into account.

Finally, Korea has to be very careful when it comes to a nation gripped by sex, drugs and rock n’roll; as such a lifestyle leads to high crime rates. Korea was once a crime free-zone, and I hope the next article I write about Korea won't be something like: Seoul: the world capital of crime.

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