Friday, August 19, 2011

Inside Korea

Korean Adventure (November 1, 2002 Chautauqua)

I subscribe to an English-language newspaper called the Korea Herald. It gives mostly political and economic news, and a view of what some aspects of Korean life is like. There are profiles of Korean public figures, discussions of artistic endeavours, and bits of traditional lore/folkways.

In the political arena, one of the main points of interest for the past year has been the presidential election, due in December. There are two main parties, the Grand National Party, and the Millennium Democratic Party, which was created about six years ago by the sitting President, Kim Dae-jung.

President Kim received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation with North Korea. This process was stalled for a time after the election of George W. Bush, who included North Korea in his so-called "Axis of Evil." It is only recently that things have gotten back on track (pun intended). The two Koreas are building a rail link through the de-militarized zone, and working on a permanent re-unification village, where long-separated families can meet.

President Kim has had a very bad year. His administration is under investigation for corrupt practices, and two of his sons are now in jail for profiteering. The president is not eligible to run for re-election, but the voters are turning away from his party in droves. The present candidate has spent more time fighting off challenges from within his party than campaigning. Whether the party will survive to the election is still up in the air.

The candidate from the Grand National Party hasn't had an easy time, either. His son has been accused of draft-dodging, and there have been acrimonious exchanges when the law-makers meet in session. At one time, there were so many charges and counter-charges flying around, the Herald had a "Scandal Round-Up" section in the paper.

News from the north is scanty. There are tales of millions of people starving to death, which makes the need for reconciliation that much more acute. One story said that people were foraging in the hills for anything edible, and others were attempting to cultivate seaweed. The same day that story appeared, another one was printed that said the south's First Lady had sent up a shipment of soccer balls. The thought of starving people being given sporting equipment...

A recent article outlined South Korea's high costs and low quality of life. It is the eighth most expensive place to rent an apartment (three bedrooms): 1,580USD/month, as compared to: Taiwan 1,440USD; China 1,460USD; America 1,675USD; and Japan 2,160USD. Office space runs 523USD/year for one square meter (ninth highest), compared with 245USD in China, 452USD in America, and 486USD in Taiwan.

Korea ranks 22nd out of 131 countries in terms of living expenses, while Korean households earmark 4.9% of their budget for education of children, the highest ratio in the world, followed by the U.S., 2.4%; Japan, 2.1%; and Britain, 1.4%. Despite the high cost of living, the 2002 quality of life index for Korea stood at 5.64, ranking 32nd out of 49 countries and trailing Austria (9.77), the U.S. (8.92), and Japan (6.15). The hourly wage of Korea's manufacturing sector workers averaged 8.13USD as of 2000, ranking 21st of 29 countries and trailing Germany (22.29USD), Japan (22USD), and the U.S. (19.86USD).

A lot of Koreans drive their own cars, and they spend a lot of money customizing them to the particular owner's taste. They also have very good, and cheap, transit systems. I do not have a car, but I can get around the country very well for very little cost. It comes in handy when the freeways are jammed to zip past in comfort on the train.

Mostly everybody has a cell phone. It is not unusual to see a couple walking down the street, both of them talking away, but not to each other. The phones are cunning little items, and some of them have special headsets that make it look like wires are trailing out of someone's ears. A lot of people tap away at their hand sets, sending text messages. The rings are modern pop tunes/classical pieces that almost make up for it when they ring in the middle of a crowded movie theatre. Sometimes I think I'm the only person in Korea who doesn't own one. Even my kids have them!

I don't want this to be taken the wrong way, but sometimes Koreans remind me of big, happy children - easily mollified by bright, shiny objects - but with a capacity to work harder than we are used to in the west. They work hard, and they play even harder. They have the confidence that will surely be rewarded, and it will be more than deserved.
I remember the GNP leader Lee Hoi-chang once being quoted that he was shocked, shocked, at the opposing parties' corrupt practices. The very next week he was under investigation, and he eventually retired from politics.
Despite it's very high standard of living, it was fairly economical to live in South Korea. Mostly because the school paying for your living expenses and health care.
I sometimes wish I was back there earning a living instead of begging for a job, any job back here in the world.
I didn't get a cell phone until my third year there. I probably should have gotten one earlier. I resisited as long as I could, but it just became too impractible not to have one.

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