For Chong Yong Hi, a 35-year-old housewife, her country’s phenomenal economic growth means an apartment of her own after years of scrimping and living five to a room.
For Suh Hae Sok, a 63-year-old technician, it means the passing of an era when people knew and trusted each other.
And for a young mother who lives in a half-demolished house on the outskirts of Seoul, it means fighting the wrecking ball as a new housing development threatens to uproot her family.
These are some of the effects, good and bad, of South Korea’s economic miracle. Few nations can have changed as dramatically as South Korea in so short a time. Growth and Transformation
In little more than 30 years, an agrarian society has become industrial; a nation of country-dwellers has become urban, and people who once struggled to put enough food on the table now enjoy television sets, refrigerators and stereos. A country that once claimed rice as its main product now challenges the United States and Japan as a manufacturer of cars, ships, television sets, computers and video cassette recorders.
But along with prosperity and industrial might, South Korea’s economic growth has also created a new set of problems. While the Korean War left nearly everyone equally poor, now Koreans worry about the gulf between the haves and have-nots – and about the resulting political tensions. Millions of South Koreans have found opportunity in the nation’s cities, but the urban population explosion has strained resources like housing. These changes have dramatically altered a way of life that endured in South Korea for thousands of years. While many enjoy the new comforts, they mourn the loss of traditions they held dear. Much Change, Little Time
While such problems are common to many developing countries, the speed and scale of growth and industrialization set South Korea apart. As in Japan, the Government has taken a central role in guiding and managing the economy, although the system is essentially capitalistic. But in Japan, the changes resulting from modernization and industrialization began nearly 100 years ago, then quickened after the end of World War II.
In South Korea the changes have taken place in a much shorter period, so the inevitable stresses of development are heightened, and sometimes politicized. And emphasis on heavy industries like steel, cars, shipbuilding and petrochemicals sets it apart even from such newly prosperous neighbors as Taiwan and Singapore. From Milk Lines To Ski Vacations When Lee Kyui Nam was a child in the years just after the Korean War, he thought only rich people could eat rice; everyone he knew ate barley, and substituted potatoes for meat. In school, children lined up for milk, sent as part of American food aid and ladled into glasses from a bathtub.
Now 41 years old, Mr. Lee owns a company with 300 employees that makes small television sets and stitches clothes for designers who include Liz Claiborne. He thinks his monthly salary of $1,785 puts him in the upper 10 percent income bracket.
He, his wife, and their two young sons live in a large, $113,000 apartment near some of the best schools in Seoul. He works nearly 12 hours a day, five and a half days a week, but he tries to take his family to a ski resort in the winter and the beach in the summer. His wife, Lee Hwa Sook, may spend a typical morning at a driving range, practicing her golf swing, before rushing home to cook lunch when her two sons return from school.
Chong Yong Hi spends her days at a sewing machine, working on embroidered decorative figures of butterflies and fans. Her means are modest compared to those of the Lee family, but she sees comfort where once there was privation.
Like many young women from the country, Mrs. Chong came to Seoul to work in a small garment factory. She married, had two children, and for years the family of five, including her bedridden mother-in-law, lived in a small rented room. Her husband worked 10-hour shifts, six days a week, as a city bus driver; she set up a sewing machine in their home.
It took them six years to save enough to pay $30,000 for their four-room apartment. Between them, they now make $775 a month – enough, with economies, to allow them an imported stereo system and, for their bedroom, a black lacquer closet with inlaid mother-of-pearl.
Millions of these individual success stories helped fuel South Korea’s economic miracle. Annual per capita income soared from $105 in 1965 to $2,032 in 1985. In 1970, 6.4 percent of the households owned televisions; a decade later, 86.7 percent did.
Nonetheless, South Korea is by no means a wealthy nation. Per capita income is one-eighth that of Japan or the United States. Few families own cars. Compared to Japanese, South Koreans earn far lower wages, work longer hours, and have less money left over after paying for necessities. Although average farm income is not much lower than average urban income, rural families are less likely to have such amenities as flush toilets, refrigerators, or insulated homes. The Flight To the Cities South Korea’s transformation from farming to industrial society also prompted an exodus from the country to the city – a change as dramatic as the leaps in per capita income or gross national product. In 1930, 95 percent of South Korea’s population lived in the countryside; in 1985, 65 percent lived in cities. And every year, more than 400,000 people continue to leave villages to seek opportunity in cities.
By far the most dramatic population explosion has taken place in Seoul, where nearly one-fourth of South Korea’s 41 million people now live. Seoul is the showcase not only for South Korea’s accomplishments, but also for the inevitable problems of rapid urbanization. The city is visibly stretching at the seams.
City officials have made great strides in city services for all these people. In 1985, 97.5 percent of Seoul residents had running water, compared with only 50 percent in 1976. And officials have begun to redress one of Seoul’s main scourges – air and water pollution.
But housing remains a difficult problem. Although more than one million housing units have been built since 1980, a question remains: For whom is the housing being built? As Kim Choong Soo, an economist with the Government-financed Korea Development Institute, points out, much of the Government-subsidized ”national housing” is affordable only for middle- or upper-class Koreans.
Moving into almost any apartment or house requires a substantial outlay of cash, either by outright purchase or a system known as chonsei, in which a tenant pays a landlord a lump sum that can run into tens of thousands of dollars.
The landlord then invests the money, uses the interest as rent, and returns the balance when tenants move out. To raise this kind of money often requires a pooling of funds from many relatives, who cram in together, or a resort to the ”curb” market, where interest rates are high. The Housing Battle: Desperate Tenants Efforts to build better housing often involve expelling squatters. And when the zeal to improve housing clashes with the anger of those who have been uprooted, housing policy takes on an explosive tinge.
The last stop on one of Seoul’s new subway lines leads to the neighborhood of Sanggye. Past markets where men haul pushcarts of vegetables and women spread out baskets of fruit on the ground lie concrete boulders and crumbled bricks, the relics of what was once a community of laborers. Now 85 families, living in half-demolished homes that they once rented and in hastily erected tents, are fighting a redevelopment plan that will build new homes that they say they cannot afford.
Sanggye itself was created when slum clearance projects in the early 1960’s forced residents out of other Seoul neighborhoods. The tenants of Sanggye had been paying rents of $48 a month – the most they could afford, given average monthly salaries of $180 earned from day labor at construction sites, stitching piecework at home, or selling vegetables.
Sanggye homeowners agreed to the redevelopment plan, and the company involved offered both owners and tenants new land. But a group of tenants discovered that the move would mean a two-hour commute to and from work. The tenants then refused to budge, and the company sent in toughs to persuade them. There are videotapes of young men punching women, beating up men, even shoving children against the rubble.
”I had no idea such things could happen,” said a 36-year-old mother of two who was briefly jailed for her role in resisting the new development. ”I never thought about politics – I was too busy trying to get food for my children. I try to live honestly, but when I saw these things, I was boiling on the inside.” She and the other squatters say they expect the gangs to return. From Success, New Divisions The struggle over housing offers a glimpse into the resentments of those who feel left out of the new prosperity. The issue of income distribution obsesses Koreans in and out of power, and stirs deep, often contradictory emotions. Many cannot suppress feelings of envy or suspicion when they see a neighbor who was equally poor 20 years ago having surpassed them to become a millionaire.
The depth of these feelings can be reflected in the Korean concept of ”han,” a difficult word to translate. Vincent Brandt, an associate at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University and a Korea-watcher for more than 25 years, calls han ”a sense of mistreatment, frustration, rancor, regret -the weight of all the tragedies in Korean life.” This concept is being played out today in the tensions about economic equality. Narrowing the Gap: A Sensitive Issue Indeed, income distribution is a sensitive political issue, with Government officials and opposition groups alike promising to try to narrow the gap between rich and poor.
By any standard measurement of income distribution, South Korea comes off fairly well. But as Dr. Kim concedes, most South Koreans assume that the gap between rich and poor is widening. The problem, he and others believe, is that Koreans judge by higher standards. What might be taken for granted in the United States or other countries – such as slums abutting wealthy neighborhoods -may be intolerable here.
High atop a hillside in the Pongchon neighborhood of Seoul perch the makeshift houses of the poor. The houses – fashioned from wooden planks, plastic sheets, rusted tin, daubs of concrete, patches of old vinyl shelf lining – cling to every ledge.
A young woman nursing a baby sits in her tiny one-room house. Her husband works as a small subcontractor for a dressmaking company. In a recent month he brought home only $80 for their family of five – far below the official poverty line, defined in 1985 by the Korea Development Institute as 118,000 won a month, or about $140, for a four-member household.
Like many other South Koreans, she declined to discuss politics with a foreigner. But she spoke wistfully about her life.
”Of course, I want to get out of here,” she said, gesturing to their room, which contained a refrigerator, a television set, cupboards and neatly folded sleeping mattresses. The doorway was a wood frame covered with a ripped piece of cloth. ”But if I were downtown, in a wealthier area, I would feel so depressed. I wouldn’t be brave enough to talk to those people. I feel a wall between us and them.”
On the top of another mountain about a half an hour away, in the plush Itaewon neighborhood, stands the home of one of South Korea’s wealthiest men, the chairman of the Samsung conglomerate, Lee Byung Chul. There are actually two homes, and in their scale and ornament they resemble houses in an exclusive American neighborhood. A huge brick mansion stands next to a traditional Korean home. A high wall surrounds the whole.
Such contrasts have led some South Koreans, most notably labor groups, to question whether workers are receiving their due. Dr. Kim of the development institute points out that industrial wages rose 800 percent between 1973 and 1980, and always increased at least as much as the increase in productivity. He argues that raising wages above this level would cause employers to lay off workers, because South Korea has an ample labor supply. But there are workers who feel wronged.
”I think it’s unfair – there’s such a big difference between office workers and factory workers,” said a man who earns $260 a month in a metals factory working 11-hour shifts. ”I would get double the salary if I had more education.” From Rising Hopes To Deep Frustrations The tension can be explosive, and the Government recently arrested the leaders of several labor organizations that encouraged workers to view themselves as an oppressed group.
Not all the uneasiness over income distribution translates so directly into political confrontation. Prof. Lim Hy Sop, professor of sociology at Korea University, suggests that what may be more pervasive are the expectations triggered by rapid economic progress, and the attendant frustrations if reality falls short. In a nation where Horatio Alger stories seem as common as the pots of the pickled cabbage known as kimchi that stand outside every Korean home, any failure seems doubly galling.
But whatever the strains, the ideal of unlimited opportunity still exerts a powerful hold on many Koreans, not least among them Mrs. Chong, the woman who spends much of her day at a sewing machine. Asked if she feels jealous of families with more money, she said: ”I really think it depends on how hard you try. If you try hard, you can improve your life.” Does Modernity Doom Old Values?
Others, like Mr. Suh, the 63-year-old technician, are less comfortable with the new prosperity. Although he has done well under the new order – he lives with his wife, a younger daughter and his son’s family in a spacious three-bedroom apartment – he is suspicious of it as well.
”We’ve had economic growth without values,” he said as his young granddaughter clambered onto his lap. ”Out of it came a society with a widespread atmosphere of distrust -between the haves and have-nots, between generations, between neighbors. In the countryside, there were no walls between homes; that’s not true in the cities. Our Korean society used to be a society where we gave priority to human beings. Now we give priority to material goods. The result is confusion.”
But South Koreans who do not remember the society Mr. Suh mourns do not share his regrets. It is a difference in attitude that injects a new twist into the old conflict between generations.
Chae Song Su, a Seoul housewife with grown children, is worried about her son. ”My son says, ‘I will marry the woman I want,’ ” she said. ”I say, ‘You will marry a woman who is proper for the family, who will follow me.’ I bore this child, so I have the right to insist on this.”
Her 26-year-old son, Ryu Wan Hi, smiled at her and put a hand affectionately on her shoulder as he told her not to worry. ”I’ll get married when I find the right person,” he said. ”My mother, my family, don’t regard me as an individual, but as a part of a family. So they constantly tell me what to do and sometimes it’s not realistic.”
Yet Song June Ho, a historian of premodern Korea at Wongwang University in the southern city of Chonju, argues that many traditional values are very much alive in Korea – the overriding importance of family, the respect for education, the Confucian sense that morality is a crucial measure of government.
As the years separate the old and new South Koreas, new dreams are succeeding the old imperatives of survival and adaptation. Although tensions about income distribution persist, more and more South Koreans, regardless of their actual incomes, think they belong to the middle class – 53 percent at last count in an Economic Planning Board survey. These people have aspirations to match – hopes to spend more time together as a family, even to participate more in their government.
”More and more people feel they are living a middle-class life,” Professor Lim said. ”People shop at supermarkets. They can send their kids to middle school and high school. They can eat out on the weekend. The family can visit parks. They are demanding more and more of government. In a sense, people feel they are high-school graduates but are being treated as primary-school graduates.”
How their Government and society respond to such new aspirations will help determine the future of a nation that has come so far, so fast. NEXT: Living with a hostile neighbor.
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