In the past, South Korea has been lauded as a successful case of economic growth and wealth distribution. Today, it stands at a crossroad, having to pay for the costs of the compressed development that expanded opportunities over a short period of time.
Economic growth catapulted South Korea to the 15th largest economy in the world, but the price of doing so is proving higher than expected. Severe damage has occurred across every sector, including political confrontation, financial crisis, social conflict, cultural lag, chance accidents and environmental pollution. For instance, tragedies such as that of the Sewol ferry disaster are happening all the time.
Why do we see these repeated tragedies? It is probably due to a more fundamental force. Within the competition for speed and efficiency, anomies such as materialism, corruption and dehumanization were conceived. Social consciousness regarding public interest disappeared and disasters induced by poor practices forced South Korea to endure much sacrifice and loss.
Let’s turn to the pendulum from the cradle to the grave. South Korea’s birthrate is the lowest among all OECD countries, just 1.2, not even reaching the level necessary to maintain the current population. Considering the poor condition of child welfare and the astronomical amounts spent on private education, the pain of children is clearly portrayed in numbers. Among every 100,000 teenagers, 35 commit suicide, three times the OECD average.
Even after going through exam hell and having made it to their dream university, tuition is twice the average monthly household income of a city worker. The shadow over the quality of life becomes longer as unemployment and job discrimination increase during a recession. The rotation of workplace, from low wage, early retirement to self-employment, cannot bear the increasing cost of living and allow freedom from debt.
On the other end of a country where working hard may simply result in more debt, the total wealth of the richest four individuals is larger than the entire budget of the capital city Seoul. Where is the good money that changes the world?
The road back to nature, and death, is also rough. Including the 1.25 million senior citizens who live alone and do not have much in savings, most seniors are enduring a horrendous reality. For 10 years in a row, South Korea has ranked No.1 in elderly poverty and elderly suicide rates. Over the past 10 years, the OECD poverty rate was 12.7 percent, while the number of suicides per 100,000 people decreased from 22.5 to 20.9. Yet for the aged population in South Korea, the poverty rate was 45.7 percent and the number of suicides per 100,000 drastically increased from 34.2 to 80.3.
This sorrowful portrait of South Korea is simply heartbreaking. Due to the period of rapid economic growth that created an obsession with material wealth, we have simply forgotten or even lost grip on the very basis of life. So then, is a wealthy country really happy?
It is well known from international examples that economic success does not guarantee happiness. Although Bhutan, a small nation in the Himalayas, is a small and slow-growing economy, it enjoys a high degree of personal satisfaction with life. Their policies are aimed toward increasing total happiness rather than economic growth, emphasizing the environment and culture rather than economic growth.
In the United States, the world's superpower, on the other hand, one out of seven children is starving. Looking at other OECD members also shows that high income does not necessarily mean a better life. The Happy Planet Index presents similar results. Costa Rica and Vietnam are ranked first and second, while South Korea is ranked 63rd.
Why is this so? It is due to the time distortion induced by the blind run for material abundance, resulting in a declining middle class and rising social conflicts caused by income inequality.
This paradox shows that we as human beings should ultimately pursue happiness, not economic growth, and that government policies should be realigned away from production and income to the quality of life. National innovation is prone to failure if the society cannot efficiently mediate interest dynamics in order to improve the quality of life. A state-social partnership is essential in this process. Trust recovery or conflict resolution methods, such as Conseil National du Débat Public in France or the Ombudsmen in Spain, can be effective. Stratum responsibility can be strengthened, and disharmony alleviated with institutional betterments such as donations and charity, or taxes and penalties levied in accordance with income elastically that designate the recipients and donors, or subjects and standards for policy programs related to the public interest.
Human beings should be renewed from their old and battered state. Nobody should be in a hell of agony. Society should be left in its natural state, with the state providing supportive conditions to make this possible. It should be a playground of opportunity for the talented, and a shelter for the weak and poor. But happiness is remote if we value and pursue appearance and leave the wounds deep in our hearts, and cannot make dry what is wet. How can we heal our inner pain to live as the human beings we are, overcoming the perils and strife of life while protecting the roots of our society? How can we be free from the success stories of a winner-take-all world?
We should nurture energy that will make a substantial impact on our lives: energy to make those living a lie realize their folly, to be free from the custom of exploiting oneself and scapegoating others in an excessively competitive life, or to be the very seed of goodness in society by voluntarily starting things that others might give up. The expanding population returning to rural areas, to their homes, to their farms, is turning out to be the impetus to overcome the urbanization and aging problems that we face, as well as a means of spreading new values on living conditions.
Alternative schools are adding a degree of freshness to the practice of the true education movement, by inducing self-directed learning and cooperation, and overcoming the limits of the existing education system, which is so focused on the competition for university entrance and simple information memorization.
Is it too much to wish that Korea’s spirit can be resurrected, and make the good drive out the bad by saving and investing time in our environment? If not, what is the state to us? It is the worst combination to show love and sympathy with one hand while hiding the other filled with greed and contempt.
Moon-Gi Suh is a Professor at the Department of Information Sociology at Soongsil University in Seoul. This was written or the East Asia Foundation.