A plunge into South Korean economy, politics and social culture
By Magnus Lundström
Development and contrasts: Those are probably the words that would appear in people’s minds when visiting the Republic of Korea – generally known as South Korea. The country has one of the world’s best internet connections and the capitol Seoul has, according to many, the best metro system in the world. It is regarded as one of the strongest and most prosperous economies, and is in financial terms known as one of East Asia’s ‘Four Tigers’ (alongside Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong). However, this has not always been the case for South Korea. The Korean War, which was one of the most devastating and bloody conflicts after 1945 (with estimated deaths of 3 million people), ended in 1953. North and South’s border, established after the Second World War, remained virtually unchanged. The war had been a disaster for the South Korea. Politically, it was ruled by authoritarian leaders and the military, and the economy was in complete ruins.
The contemporary image of South Korea is somewhat different. Only 66 years have passed since the armistice, and the country has seen an impressive metamorphose. The Korean export industry is nowadays a big contributor to the economy, and supplies the world with cars, modern industrial machines and large transportation ships. Companies such as Samsung and Hyundai are internationally successful. In 1960, the GDP of Korea was (according to the World Bank) 3.9 billion dollars. 55 years later, in 2015, the GDP’s estimated to almost a staggering $1.4tn. The life expectancy, which in 1960 was 53 years, has increased to 82 years. The population itself has also increased. Back in 1960, the estimated population of South Korea was 25 million, in 2015 that number had doubled to 50 million. However, this rapid population growth comes with a complication; South Korea is one of the most urbanised and densely populated countries in the world. More than half of the population lives in major cities such as Seoul and Busan. An estimate of 518 persons live per square mile. Major cities have experienced heavy air pollutants from industries and vehicles.
Progress has also been done politically. Between 1945 and 1987, the Korean people saw no fewer than five different republics and administrations, in addition to an American military administration during the years following the end of the Second World War. After a coups d’état, the military ruled the country for 16 years, until the new constitution was adopted and the first election was held in 1988. The electoral system contains two elections; one for the parliament and one for the presidential office. For 15 years, Korea’s liberal party held the governmental power and the presidential office. In 2008, there was a change of power, with the conservative party winning the parliamentary election. In 2012, Park Geun-hye, the candidate for the conservative Saenuri party claimed victory over the-left-liberal coalition’s candidate, Moon Jae-in. The upcoming presidential election will be held in 2017, and the next parliamentary election is scheduled to 2020.
Despite the fact that South Korea is one of the international community’s most developed countries, with one of the world’s strongest economies, the culture which defines the Korean society is deeply conservative and traditional. Important aspects to the hierarchy are age, gender and position in society. A clear example is at the dinner table. If Soju – a traditional Korean rice vodka – is to be consumed, the youngest person is to serve the oldest person at the table. Respect for old people is very important. They are the ones who are to be served food, and begin to eat first. The family is central to Korean culture. The head of the family is the father, who is the family provider, and responsible for bringing the family ‘food, shelter and clothing.’ He is also the person in charge of approving or disapproving the marriage of other family members. If two persons meet, the person who is of ‘lower status’ shall bow for the person with a ‘higher status,’ and it is the oldest person who should initiate a potential handshake. The hierarchies are keystones to know how to act when meeting someone new. Evidently, there are many aspects of Korean social and business life, which could be considered very conservative. There are, of course, exceptions – families that decide to live a life without the traditional rules, and families which adopt to some of the rules.
The interesting part of all this, is precisely the contrast between new, high-technology, financial and political development and the old, traditional rules and customs. Over time, ever since the war ended in 1953, South Korea has developed from a poor country, mainly depending on farming, to one of the world’s leading, and most well-developed economies. The society has meanwhile kept its conservative and traditional rules. So far, the two aspects of South Korea have not seemed to publicly clash, but instead live side by side in harmony. The quite simple conclusion one can draw from all this, is that economic and political development is no guarantee for a change in the old conservative and traditional rules and values. Not in South Korea, nor anywhere else.
By Magnus Lundström