Where is South Korea going?

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

South Korea is a country of great contrasts. While on the one hand it is presented as an example of success, especially in relation to its cumbersome and menacing northern neighbor, thanks to the indisputable economic boom it has experienced in the last 50 years, on the other hand this small and industrious country has weaknesses at a socio-demographic level so evident as to make an acute observer like myself think that his future will be far from rosy.

The fuse that on 15 March 2023 unleashed yet another wave of protests, especially by young people and associations for the protection of women, was the proposal by the government of President Yoon Suk-yeol to introduce by law in a new 69 hour work week. This would mean that South Koreans would be forced to work 13,8 hours a day if they worked 5 days a week or 11,5 if they worked 6 instead. These figures would be enough to make even a German scream at the top of their lungs, but of South Korea all this already represents "normality", and its effects are anything but painless.

If we were to speak broadly about the organization of the world of work in South Korea, then we should start by saying that in the "Asian tiger" there are essentially three broad categories of workers.

Al first place and in a decidedly privileged position there are civil servants (and even here in Italy they would immediately start ringing their ears!). In South Korea, the working week of civil servants literally depends on "how much work the state bureaucratic machine has to do in a certain period of the year" therefore they alternate hyper-stressful periods with periods of almost absolute inactivity. It will seem strange to us Westerners burdened everywhere by the suffocating presence of "stone asses", but in Asian countries in general the bureaucratic machine is very streamlined and so many tasks are carried out directly by private citizens in complete autonomy thanks to new technologies and effective automated procedures.

On average, civil servants work much less than workers in the private sector, receive a stable salary and, if they wish, can retire after only 20 years of work. Access to the public sector is very competitive and only 1 candidate out of 100 is admitted, but that being the case, it truly represents an investment for life! Such is the pressure students are under before taking the entrance exam for bureaucratic schools (these exams are only attempted by South Koreans once in their lifetime, right after high school!) that more than a few commit suicide , failing to handle the pressure!

La second category, the largest, is the one that brings together medium- and high-paid workers in the private sector. These workers receive wages commensurate with the lifestyle in South Korea but are subjected to tremendous corporate pressure with backbreaking shifts that very often they exceed 70 hours per week. The reason for this state of affairs, unthinkable for most of us Westerners, is that based on the working culture of South Korea it is simply unthinkable for an employee to leave the workplace before his superiors have left and they they play precisely on this point to keep their "slaves" anchored to the workplace for several hours longer than the legal limit "should be". Not only that, the competition between workers is such that "to set a good example" they themselves decide to stay in their jobs even when they would have the right (not to mention the duty!) to go home and enjoy some well-deserved rest.

Al third placeFinally, there are private sector workers in underpaid or badly paid jobs. This category is, in size, almost as large as the second. The lives of these men and women are such as to turn each of us into ardent Marxist-Leninists. The minimum wage for these individuals is around 10.000 South Korean won per hour which is equivalent to about 7 euros. If these unfortunates worked, hypothetically, 8 hours, then they would earn 56 euros a day. By working 5 days a week they will earn 280 euros, which for transitive property would become less than 1300 euros per month (if it goes well!). However, the cost of living in South Korea is simply unsustainable for wages of this level and the "third category" workers have to compensate by necessarily working more hours and continuing even on weekends, literally 7 days a week for prolonged periods, stopping for two or three days in a row once a month when they reach complete physical exhaustion. Definitely not a kind of life we ​​would be tempted to envy.

Last but not least, to get the complete picture it is necessary to remember that, the end of the working day does not at all mean that the worker is free to go home. In fact, when the doors of the company are closed and the lights are turned off, company practice requires managers and workers to huddle together in the collective ritual of the "Hoesik" which could be translated as: "being together, eating together and drinking together".

Conceived as a collective ritual to strengthen the corporate bond outside the working context, the "Hoesik" has become over time a sort of "prison" that is helping to tear apart family ties in South Korea, as well as being the main flywheel of other socially destructive phenomena such as the growth of alcoholism, the collective abuse of drugs, gang rapes and so on and so forth.

The end result is that wild capitalism combined with the rigid social customs of discipline and collective self-denial that characterize all the societies of the Far East is literally incinerating (and at a surprising speed) the demographic foundations on which the system is based village.

Unique among all societies on Earth, the South Korean one had a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2022 children per woman (!) in the year 0,78 and it seems that the trend will continue its inexorable downward race also in the future.

The figure is even more impressive if we consider that, still in 1960, the TFR of South Korean women was 6,16 children per woman and that year 1,080,535 children were born, compared to only 249,031 born in 2022 (just over 23% of those born 62 years earlier!). The result of this very heavy demographic contraction is that in the last three years, for the first time since the existence of statistical surveys, South Korea has a negative demographic balance (-123.797 in 2022) and the total population of the country, which in 2020 peaked at 51.836.239, has since begun to decline. It is obvious that in a situation like this, any company cannot hold out, let alone remain competitive.

Such a situation would require urgent measures to raise the birth rate and make working conditions more acceptable and instead the South Korean government seems to be oriented towards the complete opposite.

According to data published by the OECD, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2021 South Koreans worked an average of 1915 hours (an average of 160 hours per month) or 200 hours more than the average of other developed countries .

The government's initiative to make the 69-hour work week mandatory would have further deleterious effects on individuals' health and psyche, family ties and even reproductive instincts given that, by pure logic, who would want to "have fun under the sheets" after a working day of 11-13 compulsory hours, 2-3 additional optional hours (ma de facto compulsory too), 2 or more hours of compulsory “Hoesik” and 1-2 hours of travel on public transport or by car to get home?

At this point you need to ask yourself: where is south korea going? What kind of socio-economic model do its political leaders have in mind? And is there any madman who would like to replicate it here as well?

Photo: Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and Korean Culture and Information Service