Women’s Rights in South Korea
Historically, women’s rights in South Korea have had limitations and have handicapped the country’s progression. In all realms of society – socially, politically, economically and culturally – women have ranked lower and had fewer rights than their male counterparts. However, there are significant advancements in improving the status of women in South Korea. Specifically, efforts in closing the country’s gender gap could allow for the economy to flourish, and in return, lower overall poverty rates.

Gender Inequality in South Korea

Traditionally, South Korea previously used Confucianism to rule its moral codes and societal structure. For women, these codes determined that they should be obedient to the men in their lives – fathers, husbands and sons. Until the 21st century, men had the title of the head of the household for their families, which reinforced the deep inequality between South Korean men and women. For women, the continuation of familial lines was the primary societal expectation. These historical-cultural expectations set precedence regarding women’s rights in South Korea in modern times.

In 2005, South Korea’s Constitutional Court made the decision to officially retire the tradition of “hoju,” which placed the man at the head of the household. The abolishment of this system had intentions of uplifting South Korean women by improving their daily lives and shows the country heading towards a more inclusive society. In modern-day South Korea, men and women now have equal rights, and furthermore, female employment rates have risen to over 52% since 2018. These significant improvements in women’s rights in South Korea have the potential to create a future with a flourishing economy.

Despite best efforts, South Korea still continues to rank towards the bottom for economic opportunities for women. South Korea ranks at 115 for the country’s economic gender gap, ranks at 124 for economic participation and female opportunity and has the largest pay gap among OECD countries. In addition, South Korean’s working population has started declining and expectations have determined that birthrates will begin to decrease by 2028. A simple, straightforward solution to these issues would be a higher integration of women in the workplace. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an increase in female labor would also increase South Korea’s GDP by 7%, a substantial amount. So, the question is, what is South Korea doing to support female involvement in the workplace?

Solutions

In a 2015 interview, Kim Hee-Jung, the minister of gender equality and family, discussed the ways South Korea is attempting to close its gender gap. Kim Hee-Jung first corrected a common misconception that people have in regard to increasing women’s opportunities by stating an increase in opportunities for women does not decrease men’s opportunities. She proved her point by stating that “the statistics show that in OECD countries with high rates of female economic participation, birthrates and economic growth rates tend also to be higher.” Furthermore, there are policies to aid in creating a sustainable work-life balance for both South Korean men and women. For example, the government initiated the “two-track support for paternity leave,” where men will receive their entire month’s salary if they decide to take paternity leave after their wives have. Kim Hee-Jung ended the interview on a promising note for the future of female power in South Korea’s economy.

Overall, women’s rights in South Korea have greatly improved in this past century. Although South Korea began by placing social expectations and limitations on its women, it has made great efforts in changing these traditional roles. For the South Korean economy to truly thrive, others must continue to recognize and reduce inequality in the workplace. With this acknowledgment, South Korea has the ability to uplift its women in order to enhance its entire economy.

– Bolorzul Dorjsuren
Photo: Flickr

Education in South Korea
After the Korean War, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world with a GDP per capita of $79. Today, it is home to many innovative technology companies and has a GDP of $1.619 trillion. This massive progress is largely due to the high standards of education in South Korea. With a strong cultural emphasis on education, the country was able to develop a flourishing economy and facilitate poverty reduction.

The Principles of Education

Education has always been important for Koreans. In the 18th century Korea, neo-Confucianist ideals and a stringent class system framed the Korean social order. Many considered education essential to slowly eliminate social stratification and offer equal opportunities. In fact, King Sejong the Great, the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty, created the Korean alphabet Hangul for that specific purpose. He wanted all of his people to be able to read and write, not just those of higher social class.

During the Japanese colonization of Korea, which lasted from 1910 until 1945, Japanese became the official language and Hangul was completely banned. Despite Japan’s imposed restraints on potential educational opportunities for Koreans during this time, the desire for education persisted. It was so tremendous that after Korea gained independence, the Korean people overwhelmingly demanded more opportunities for education. It evolved into a standard of economic and social mobility, or the fairest way to move up the socio-economic ladder. The industrialization process began through this principle, subsequently making education essential for employment.

South Korea’s Rise to the Top

In 1945, around the end of Japanese colonization, South Korea’s literacy rate was 22%, among the lowest in the world. To eradicate illiteracy, South Korea launched campaigns that aimed to educate those who did not have primary education. Additionally, in the 1950s, the government made elementary school obligatory by law. As a result, South Korea’s literacy rate rose to 96% by 1958.

The policies used to increase literacy rates also contributed to the rise in post-secondary education. South Korea ranks as the number one most educated country, where almost 70% of individuals between the ages of 25 and 34 have completed college, university or any other form of higher education.

Along with education in South Korea, the country’s economy transformed tremendously. Many consider South Korea’s economy to the most innovative economy regarding technology and has ranked number one in innovation for several years, raising its GDP to $1.619 trillion. Its ratio of research and development program spending to GDP is the highest in the world. South Korea has one of the most intricate and interconnected economies, leading in exports of information and communications technology as well as automobiles. It is also the first country to introduce 5G internet services for mobile carriers.

Education, Labor and Technology

The South Korean government believed that economic development on a national scale required high learning abilities and cognitive skills. By investing in education, students would develop skills and knowledge that would help in becoming excellent workers. The economy then flourishes and begins to invest back into education. The government also made sure to provide vocational or technical training which, alongside education in South Korea, has contributed to the low unemployment of 3.7%.

The emphasis on education in South Korea extends beyond national economic improvement. Technological companies such as Samsung encourage corporate-academic collaborations with universities like Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon where they collaborate on research in electrochemistry and the development of new energy sources. Samsung has also provided technology to classrooms in an attempt to reduce the education gap.

Reduction of Poverty

The international community has long-since known that education alleviates poverty. There is a strong correlation between education, economic empowerment and low unemployment. Education helps economies grow and infrastructures develop. In South Korea, it was government policy that made education the biggest portion of the budget, next to defense. Government policy also used land reform to boost education. Land reform redistributed land which significantly reduced land ownership inequality. It thereby changed social policy, reduced poverty and aided in bringing educational levels to an all-time high. Rural populations with higher levels of education in South Korea produced a large workforce of well-educated individuals that served as a catalyst for industrialization and reduction of poverty. Today, although South Korea still battles poverty and an education gap between the rich and the poor, the country and its economy have greatly transformed since 1945.

Nada Abuasi
Photo: Unsplash

Elderly Poverty in South Korea

While South Korea is home to great technological developments and world-famous rising trends, it also has one of the highest numbers of impoverished elderly in a single developed country. Around half of the senior citizens are living in poverty with little to no support from relatives or the government. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, consists of over 30 countries that work with one another to encourage economic development. Unfortunately, despite all the economic progress it has made, South Korea has the highest elderly poverty rate of all OECD countries.

How Elderly Poverty in South Korea Came to Be

In the 1970s, a financial crisis hit South Korea that caused around 2 million people to be unemployed, many of these workers being senior citizens today. When the country began building its economy back up, many companies decided to replace the older generation of workers with younger ones. While the younger workers did not cost as much, the newly jobless population was left with no other choice but to retire earlier than expected.

In the present day, the now elderly population who was affected by the financial crisis have to support themselves by working non-conventional jobs. These jobs include picking trash off the street, cleaning or in the most extreme cases, elderly prostitution. Since this way of living is detrimental to the mental wellbeing of the older population, senior suicide rates have risen over time. Just three years ago, for senior citizens around 70 years old, nearly 50 people out of 100,000 committed suicide. For senior citizens around 80 years old, that number went up to 70 people per 100,000.

South Korea’s Welfare Programs

  • Comprehensive Welfare Program: In 2012, South Korea began the Comprehensive Welfare Program to benefit the impoverished elderly population. Senior citizens who are physically compromised were given assistance in everyday routines, such as housework or laundry. Meals are provided at senior citizen dining halls and even delivered for those who cannot make it to a meal service location. Social service and activity programs were implemented as well, which helps boost the mood of the elderly who would not have otherwise gotten a form of entertainment anywhere else.
  • Community Care Program: In 2019, South Korea announced the Community Care Program to aid senior citizens as well as other vulnerable groups. This program is spread all throughout South Korea, with application booths in plenty of local areas. Similar to the Comprehensive Welfare Program, the Community Care Program also provides in-home care services for physically compromised seniors, as well as food deliveries. This program also provides public housing and elderly daycare for those in need of special assistance and care. Additionally, 12 million won (nearly $12,000) will be provided as subsidies for senior citizens who continue to reside in the Community Care Program.

Creating Jobs for Seniors

In late 2019, South Korea’s employment rate continued to grow over 300,000 new jobs every month. Employment in late 2019 was around 27.5 million jobs, which is over 330,000 more jobs from the previous year. This hiring growth was because of the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s plans to increase senior jobs using the over 1.5 trillion won (nearly $1.5 billion) from their budget. Those who were out of a job previously were able to get a chance at improving their lives and livelihoods through becoming employed again.

– Karina Wong
Photo: Needpix

Higher Education

South Korea has some of the highest education rates out of all the nations in the developed world; however, the distortion in their public higher education system has created a massive trap in unemployment for many young South Koreans straight out of college. Over the past three years, the South Korean government has made vital reforms to extend and deepen its teachings in higher education. This way, university students can reap all the benefits of their education, attaining financial and mental stability.

The Moon Administration

South Korea’s occupational and economic market is ruled with an iron fist by families and partners of chaebol — gigantic oliguric companies and corporations who use complete nepotistic bias when employing young South Koreans, holding grotesque control over both financial and political sectors of their society. In May of 2017, President Moon Jae-in was elected into power. He promised South Koreans that the corruption the chaebol had caused in their society was to be renounced, diminished and abandoned, leading the way for South Korea to be more equal and equitable in employment and social politics.

Moon knew the most effective way to bring a major change in the job market was to make adjustments to the higher education system to decrease favoritism and competition between universities and employers. One form of action Moon pushed was “blind hiring,” or limiting the amount of information employers could request concerning an individual’s university ranking and GPA in their initial application. This would decrease the amount of profiling and preference which has been rooted in the South Korean occupational world.

SKY Universities

More than 80% of higher education institutions in South Korea are privately owned and have rigorous admissions, requiring students to pass a test that most individuals can pass only with a professional tutor or prior private specialty science and mathematics schooling. The three most prestigious universities in South Korea, known as SKY, are Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. These schools are the only noted educational institutions for chaebol employers. This makes it extremely difficult for individuals from low-income homes to ever attain such professions because they don’t have the funds for a private tutor or prior elite schooling to be admitted to a SKY university.

In attempts to have a more socioeconomic diverse population of students at SKY universities, in 2018, the Moon administration ordered the SKY universities to make their admissions testing far less extensive and detailed to increase the number of applicants who would be able to pass the entry exam. The current government administration also put limitations on the number of students the SKY universities could accept so that more public universities in South Korea could build their reputations on the job market. Both of the SKY initiatives placed by Moon were very innovative in disassembling the distorted educational promises of South Korean society.

Elimination of Elite Education

The Moon administration has aimed to eliminate all elite high schools to equalize the kind of education that young South Koreans are receiving, creating a more fair college admissions process by 2025. Thirteen universities in Seoul that had more than 25% of students from elite secondary schools were evaluated to examine their admissions systems level of integrity by being impartial when admitting students.

How Education Will Repair the Job Market

President Moon has made a tremendous effort by being the first political leader to go against the ancient, corrupt societal standards in employment and hiring practices. By placing more regulations on the educational private sector, both the political and social sectors will begin to be dismantled as well, creating even more building blocks for young South Koreans to move up the socioeconomic ladder. With the inequality of private educational institutions becoming more publicized through governmental action, a more secure and bright future is developing for the classist poverty trap of South Korea.

– Nicolettea Rose Daskaloudi
Photo: Flickr

healthcare in South Korea
South Korea is one of the many countries in the world that provides universal health care for its citizens. This universal health care is both a source of relief and national pride for many South Koreans. This pride is further amplified by the fact that modern health care in South Korea rose out of the devastation of the Korean War. With the recent COVID-19 global pandemic, South Koreans rely, now more than ever, on their health care system.

History of the South Korean Health Care System

South Korea’s health care system was developed at the end of the Korean War in 1953. One of the first projects that aimed to help South Korea was the Minnesota Project, launched in September 1954. Under the Minnesota Project, Seoul National University agreed to receive medical education and equipment from the University of Minnesota. The U.S. Department of State also contracted the University of Minnesota to assist Seoul University with staff improvement and equipment aid.

This project allowed the health care system to grow and flourish over tte next couple of decades. In 1977, the Korean government mandated all companies with more than 500 employees to provide health insurance programs for employees.

How South Korean Health Care Works

Established in 2000, the National Health Insurance Corporation (NHIC) is still in charge of national insurance enrollment, collecting contributions and setting medical fee schedules. To provide coverage for all Korean citizens, the NHIC gathers contribution payment from all citizens as part of their taxes. In addition to the contribution payment, the NHIC gather their funds through government subsidies, outside contributions and tobacco surcharges. This wide range of funding sources allows South Korea to provide clinics that are both modern and efficient.

Prevailing Issues

The South Korean health care system does have some issues, however. While the overall quality of health care in South Korea is excellent, access to high-quality medical care can still be difficult for rural residents. According to a WHO case study of South Korea, 88.8% of physicians in South Korea were employed by non-governmental clinics. These non-governmental clinics are usually located in urban areas. About 25% of all elderly over the age of 65 years reside in rural areas, where they are at high risk of falling and other physical injuries. With physicians mainly located in urban areas, the South Korean government recognizes the need to improve health care in rural areas.

A more recent issue that the South Korea health care system is facing is the treatment of foreign nationals. In the past, there were some foreigners who forewent payment after their medical treatment in South Korea. Termed “health care dine and dash,” the Korean government now requires all foreign nationals to sign up for the National Health Insurance scheme within their first six months of living in the country. Once a foreign national receives their Alien Registration Card, they can benefit from Korea’s National Health Insurance Scheme and private insurance.

A Model of Universal Health Care For the World

Developing out of the devastation of the Korean War, the excellent quality of health care in South Korea is a prime example of how a country can implement and sustain universal health care. Despite needs for improvement, the South Korean health care system remains an international model for universal health care. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, South Koreans recognize the importance of their continuous support for the universal health care system.

 – YongJin Yi 
Photo: Pixabay

South Korea’s Banjihas
South Korea, a country located in East Asia, has a population of almost 52 million residents. Since the 1960s, South Korea has grown economically, shifting from a poor agrarian society to one of the most industrialized nations in the world. However, there is still a division gap between the rich and the poor.

While the economic growth has rapidly expanded urban areas, like Seoul and Pusan, which promoted the construction of apartments, poor people still live in semi-basement homes called Banjiha.

What are Banjihas?

Banjihas are semi-basement apartments that exist throughout South Korea. Typically, young people end up living in these lower-rent apartments while climbing the work ladder. In addition, lower-class citizens often live in these homes.

South Korea’s Banjihas initially emerged to protect the citizens from the war with North Korea in 1953 by acting as bunkers. The law required these bunkers during this era. Due to the bunker-style construction, South Korea’s Banjihas are roughly five to seven steps below the street level. As time went by, South Korea eased construction laws and permitted Banjihas to act as actual homes after the 1980 housing crisis. These converted bunkers only allow minimal light from a small window; due to the underground nature and minimal airflow, there is often mold in these tiny spaces.

The film “Parasite” by Bong Joon-ho illustrates life in South Korea’s Banjihas and demonstrates the wealth disparity throughout the nation. It portrays the struggles of lower-class life in Banjihas, while the upper class lives in luxurious mansions.

According to the BBC, South Korea’s Banjihas are inexpensive housing options starting from 540,000 won ($453 U.S.). Typically, the minimum monthly wage of a person in South Korea starts at 1.8 million won ($1,500), making Banjihas smart financial decisions. Banjihas exist as homes for almost 364,000 families in South Korea, accounting for 1.9% of the nation, according to a 2015 survey by the Korean Statistical Information Services.

Living in Banjihas

Haebangchon is one of the oldest neighborhoods in South Seoul; the neighborhood used to be a shooting field for the 20th division of the Japanese Army. With time, it became the epicenter for refugees and home to non-citizens from all parts of the world.

With the diversity that Haebangchon, also known as the Liberation Village, brings, new shops and restaurants pop all the time. New flavors and experiences from unknown parts of the world are available for consumers.

However, a decent amount of the population in Haebangchon still lives in Banjihas. The converted bunkers carry a stigma in that people immediately consider those living in Banjihas as poor. Bong stated at the Cannes Festival that a “Banjiha is a space with a peculiar connotation… It’s undeniably underground, and yet [you] want to believe it’s above ground.”

South Korea’s Banjihas not only represent a state of poverty, but they also represent the substantial social divide in South Korea. The higher a person lives in an apartment building, the higher social status that people add to that individual’s persona.

The tiny space takes on a distinct smell from the dampness and mold. That smell tends to linger within the walls, floors, bedding sheets and even clothing. One can compare South Korea’s Banjihas to Favelas in Brazil and cage homes in Hong Kong. Further, Banjihas are the most affected spaces during floods because of the low level. Sewage will clog and add to the stench throughout the home.

In a Los Angeles Times article, South Korean poet Shin-Hyum-rim wrote a poem about living in a Banjiha titled “The Happiness of Banjiha Alice,” alluding to Alice’s emotions while in Wonderland. This poem effectively outlines how tolling desperation and stress can be on a person’s psyche.

The Good News

Although 62% of South Korea’s Banjihas exist in Seoul, the number of this type of housing is declining. Since South Korea enacted a law in 2003 requiring park spacing, the building of Banjihas has become almost impossible. Additionally, there has been a growing rush for urban redevelopment and the country is tearing down old buildings.

According to a census from Statistics Korea, the number of semi-basement homes in South Korea accounted for only 1.9% in 2015 in comparison to 3.69% in 2005.

Further, there are several non-governmental organizations, such as the Federation for Evicted People of Seoul (FEPS) and the Korean National Association of the Urban poor, that are focusing on helping low-income areas with housing difficulties. These NGOs work to secure housing and advocate for tenants who the government has evicted.

Interestingly, the younger generations are bringing change to life in South Korea’s Banjihas. When looking up #Banjiha on social media, many young people living in the apartments are reinventing what living in a Banjiha looks like. Many of these younger individuals are aiming to end the impoverished stigma around living in Banjihas.

Even though this is not the reality for many who struggle financially, both young and old citizens of South Korea are fighting for a better life, in hopes that with new construction laws and with the cooperation of NGOs and their government, South Korea’s Banjihas will be a symbolic memory of the past.

Merlina San Nicolás Leyva
Photo: Flickr

Policies of Poverty in North Korea
Few places in the world have aroused as much curiosity and suspicion as North Korea. Known as the “hermit kingdom,” the multiple facets of daily life are secret from the rest of the world, but what is little known about the country paints a very poor economic picture. North Korea’s enigmatic persona on the world stage makes any attempt to uncover its true economic standing rather difficult. This could be due to the fact that the nation has not released any statistics to the global community since the 1960s. Also, while the exact numbers regarding North Korea’s economy and poverty in North Korea are a mystery, there is still quite a bit the world knows about its economic progress (or lack thereof) and how it is affecting the quality of life of its citizens.

Poverty in North Korea

Firstly, many know that along with North Korea’s cult of personality style of governance with Kim Jong-un as its poster boy, it keeps a tight grip on all of the business affairs of the country, resulting in a command economy. As a result, the free market is essentially non-existent with the state determining not only which goods people should produce, but also how and at what price to fix them at. According to the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), “the standard of living has deteriorated to extreme levels….” Even citizens, not fortunate enough to be part of the political or social elite, do not receive the basic necessities of health care and food security.

The KINU has even estimated that poverty in North Korea extends to about half of North Korea’s population of 24 million.

North Korea’s ironclad grip on its economic and political structures, coupled with its military-centric ideology, makes for a chaotic mix resulting in a struggling population. Even with modest attempts to modernize—including special economic zones, price liberalization and limited transactions with its South Korean neighbor—North Korea still finds itself focused on military and foreign policy. By doing so, it is absorbing much-needed market capital. Also, while North Korea fears that economic liberalization will lead to political and social liberalization, it is unprepared to take the economic risks that its neighbor and ally China has taken to marry its communist politics with a partially free-market economic approach.

Global Scrutiny and Aid

North Korea has faced increased global scrutiny due to its nuclear weapons ambitions, and this has resulted in not only immense political pressure but also crippling economic sanctions. Even with the post-Soviet push for rapid industrialization, North Korea has shown little economic resilience in the face of global disconnection. This has only exacerbated the ripple effect which inevitably leads to its suffering citizens.

Additionally, while the internal systems of the hermit kingdom were not enough to overcome, North Korea finds itself repeatedly on the receiving end of climate change and natural disasters. With alternating and equally devastating periods of both droughts and floods, paired with a government unable to respond, this only aggregates North Korea’s agricultural problems.

It is even suffering its worst drought in four decades, according to its state-run media. With a majority of North Koreans relying on crops and livestock for survival, and with the intensity of irregular weather on the horizon, the country could soon find itself in dire straits that it will be unable to shield from the global community.

Even with the multitude of economic, social and political problems North Korea has in front of it, there are still signs that the global community is willing to help eliminate poverty in North Korea. With China and South Korea right along its borders, North Korea has seen help in the form of aid. South Korea has pledged $8 million for aid. China has been even more generous. In 2012, China gave 240,074 tons of rice, more than 80 times what Europe gave North Korea that same year. These pledges signal that some are offering help to lessen the burden of poverty and struggle for the citizens of North Korea, but there is still more that others can and should do.

– Connor Dobson
Photo: Flickr

 Homelessness in South Korea
It is easy to dismiss homelessness in South Korea, as the nation ranks as one of the top 20 economies in the world. High-tech society can overshadow the unfortunate reality that many of the homeless face in South Korea. In 2017, the South Korean government estimated that there were more than 11,000 homeless people in South Korea. This is not a surprise to many South Korean. When walking in Seoul for an extended amount of time, it is common to come across the homeless.

Factors that Contribute to Homelessness

  1. Housing Index: While homelessness in Seoul has dropped significantly, from 4,505 people in 2014 to 3,478 in 2018, there is still a sizable homeless population in Seoul. A variety of factors contribute to homelessness in South Korea. The rapid rise in housing prices all around the country is making owning a home more difficult for many Koreans. The housing index, a trend of average housing prices across the country, in South Korea is on a constant rise. The housing index rose from 33.60 points in 1987 to 100.20 points in 2019. This lack of affordable housing is one of the factors that contributes to homelessness in South Korea.
  2. Financial Bankruptcy: Financial bankruptcy is another leading cause of homelessness in South Korea. According to a study by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, 24 percent of the homeless lost their homes due to snowballing debts. The study stated that the average age of homeless people in South Korea is in their mid-50s.
  3. Alcoholism: For the homeless who suffer from alcoholism, receiving support can be especially difficult. Mr. Lee, a homeless in Seoul who was interviewed by South China Morning Post, testified to this issue. Since many homeless shelters have a zero-tolerance policy toward alcohol, many of the homeless elect to live on the streets. When questioned about why he left the homeless shelter, Mr. Lee said, “I used to receive support from organizations, but I stopped going to these centers because there was no freedom there.” This further reflects the prevalence of alcoholism among the homeless in South Korea.

Government Efforts to Reduce Homelessness

The South Korean government is making positive steps toward reducing homelessness in South Korea. In Seoul, the homelessness problem is still easy to spot; however, the homeless population is in a steady decline. A 2017 assessment by the Seoul government found that there had been a 30 percent decrease in the homeless population in Seoul since 2010.

South Korea’s commitment to supporting the homeless is also very public. With the election of President Moon Jae In, the Ministry of Welfare announced an expansion to assisting the homeless. The South Korean government pledged to increase the supply of housing for the homeless, creating jobs and providing job training programs for the homeless.

Currently, the city of Seoul is running an outreach program. Simin Chatdongi or “People Visiting Their Neighbors” is a program that encourages citizens to alert the authorities about their neighbors who might be on the verge of becoming homeless. Citizens who want to participate can sign up for the outreach program online or visiting a program booth at a residents’ assembly or neighborhood festival. As of Dec. 2019, the program gathered 8,563 reports.

 

Homelessness in South Korea is caused by many factors, including the housing index, financial bankruptcy and alcoholism. However, the South Korean government’s commitment to helping its less-fortunate populace leaves a silver lining to this otherwise bleak reality. Many in South Korea look forward to the positive changes that are to come for the homeless.

YongJin Yi
Photo: Flickr

Income Inequality in South Korea
As South Korean film “Parasite” celebrates an Oscar win, the conversation about income inequality in the nation is appearing in public discourse again. The film’s portrayal of the income gap between South Korea’s poor and rich portrayed a bleak picture. Income inequality in South Korea is most apparent in the nation’s education system and affordable housing. South Korea recently elected President Moon Jae-in in 2017, whose platform promised to reduce the income gap in South Korea. As a result, citizens are more conscious about income inequality than they have ever been. What is the reality of income inequality in South Korea? What are some of the solutions experts suggest will alleviate this issue?

The Economy

The society and economy in South Korea function on a winner-takes-all mentality. Some studies indicate that South Korea has one of the fastest-growing income gaps. The nation’s P90/P10 ratio, which compares the income of those in the top 10 percent to the income of the remaining 90 percent, indicates an interesting trend. While the overall P90/P10 ratio shows that income inequality in South Korea has improved since 2011, the curve rose between 2015 and 2017. Further, in 2017 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked South Korea 32nd based on the P90/P10 ratio.

The Education System

One can see an aspect of income inequality in South Korea in its education system. According to the OECD, nearly 70 percent of South Koreans, aged 25 to 34, completed some form of tertiary education. Comparatively, the United States’ tertiary education attainment rate of 49.4 percent makes it clear that South Korean culture puts a tremendous emphasis on college education. Ironically, this demand for higher education has significantly lessened the value of the degree. This decline of value in college degrees has resulted in students competing aggressively to gain acceptance to the three most prestigious universities in Seoul.

Subsequently, to assure children’s competence in the ever more competitive academic scene, many parents send students to “Hagwon,” or private after-school education institutions. In 2017, for example, reports suggested that 83 percent of 5-year-olds in South Korea were studying in these private institutions.

In addition, estimates determine that South Korean parents spend over $15 billion on private education annually. In only a single year, from 2016 to 2017, South Korean spending on private education rose 5.9 percent. Education in South Korea is becoming more burdensome for Korean parents who are not as financially well-off because, in the case of illegal private tutoring, one institution charged up to $8,000.

The Housing Market

Individuals who live in semi-basement homes also reflect income inequality in South Korea. As of 2015, over 360,000 households have a semi-basement floor-plan. The conditions in these semi-basement homes include lack of sunlight, the prevalence of critters and moldy smell due to homes’ high humidity. As a result, these residences became the stock image of housing for the poor. In Seoul, the country’s capital, the rising housing costs in South Korea are impacting these semi-basement homes.

According to the Korea Appraisal Board, the average apartment price in Seoul surpassed 500 million won (about $413,541), meaning that buyers need at least 300 million won (about $248,125) in order to even consider a purchase. This seemingly continuing rise in housing prices is making it harder for the average person to maintain responsibility for an apartment.

The Government’s Reaction

The government’s response to income inequality in South Korea takes the form of restructured tax policies. Since the 2017 election of President Moon Jae-in, the Korean government is working to expand the country’s elderly welfare and unemployment benefits. In this pursuit, the current administration imposed stiff tax hikes in 2017 which targeted leading corporate conglomerates, investors and high-income individuals. Estimates determine that this newly imposed tax plan will raise approximately $3.14 billion to support welfare programs. Many Koreans hope that this newly gained revenue will improve the circumstances for the ever-aging population of South Korea. In addition to increasing taxes for high-income South Koreans, the current administration has also increased the minimum wage.

However, there are concerns over how effective these new policies might be. For example, some reports suggest that the administration’s increase in minimum wage throughout the country might backfire. In response to the rising minimum wage, many small and medium-sized businesses simply cut back the hours that workers can to work.

Income inequality in South Korea is a complicated issue. The portrayal of families living in semi-basement homes paints a dismal picture of the middle to lower class. The ever-rising housing and education costs limit the accessibility of these resources for many South Koreans. The government’s effort to close the income gap in South Korea does not seem to be entirely effective either. However, it is significant that the South Korean government is taking active measures against income inequality. While there are plenty of issues to tackle, many South Korean citizens hope that the current administration’s efforts will result in a future with more equal opportunities and financial success.

YongJin Yi
Photo: Flickr

History of Poverty in South Korea
While K-Pop and Korean culture has appeared in mainstream media, the looming presence of poverty in South Korea has not. According to the World Bank’s 2018 GDP rankings, the Republic of Korea stands as the world’s 12th largest economy, making it understandable that poverty in South Korea is not making global headlines. For the people of South Korea, a country roughly the size of the state of Illinois, this economic achievement is a massive source of national pride. As the “miracle of the Han River,” South Korea’s economic transformation from 1961 to 1997 strengthened the narrative of South Korea as an Asian economic powerhouse. Here is some information about the history of poverty in South Korea.

History of the Korean Economy

Poverty in South Korea has always held a place in history. Korea received liberation from the Japanese empire’s 35-year colonial rule in 1945. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the Korean economy was largely agrarian. By the time the War concluded in 1953, an estimated 5 million people died. Among the 5 million dead, half of the casualties were civilians and the nation’s economy suffered equal devastation. By the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953, the GDP of South Korea was only $40.9 million. In comparison, South Korea’s GDP in 2015 was $1,485 trillion.

Economic Growth Igniting in the 1960s

Korean historians note the 1960s as a time of rapid economic growth in South Korea. Initially, the South Korean economy still depended largely upon foreign aid, although South Korea went through rapid industrialization under President Park Jeong Hee, an army general who seized government control in 1961. The major challenge facing President Park Jeong Hee was the lack of natural and raw resources after the war. Most of the natural resources in the Korean peninsula were in North Korea; therefore, South Korea had limited products for export. In 1964, the South Korean government hatched a plan to start the export of wigs. South Korean women began selling hair to wig factories and by 1970, wigs accounted for 9.3 percent of South Korea’s overall exports.

Japanese Manufacturing to South Korea

In conjunction, many Japanese textile and electronics companies began moving labor-intensive assembly plants to South Korea. As companies hired Koreans as plant employees, they gained knowledge which eventually aided in the start of Korean owned electronics corporations. Further, the South Korean government aided in funding business conglomerates, such as Samsung and LG, by providing substantial subsidies and loans. Despite this profound economic growth, poverty in South Korea was still present from the Korean War.

The poverty-stricken Korean assembly workers made the miracle of the Han River possible. During South Korea’s rapid growth, the government’s focus on cheap exports resulted in the repression of workers’ rights. For example, competing within the international market, Korean chaebols maintained a low labor cost, resulting in underpaid workers. Additionally, it was common for manufacturing workers to work 10-hour days for every day of the week. Employers and the government often ignored safety regulations and concerns too. President Park Jeong Hee outlawed unionization, making it impossible for workers to fight for rights.

In a Washington Post 1977 report, the reality of Korean workers during the 1970s was clear. William Chapman shadowed a Korean woman, Miss Lee, and found, “[that] while Korea has gleaming new factories and a growing middle class, it remains a land of miserable poverty and Dickensian wage and employment conditions for the working class.” Chapman reports abuse such as low daily wage, long working hours and lack of workers’ bargaining powers. Chapman’s work reflected terrible working conditions and those implications on poverty in South Korea.

South Korean Poverty Today

While poverty rates have significantly decreased since the 1970s, poverty in South Korea is still present. Today, two major groups experience poverty in South Korea: the non-regular workers and the elderly.

The term non-regular workers refers to the fixed-term, part-time and dispatched workers who constitute one-third of employees in South Korea. In addition to a lack of job security, non-regular workers typically earn one-third less than regular workers. This income inequality is titled market dualism. Because of the income gap, non-regular workers have less access to insurance and company-based benefits.

Many of the South Korean elderlies also live in poverty. Because of their high seniority-based wages and dated industry knowledge, most workers must leave their companies at around age 50. In 2017, the unemployment rate for the 55 to 64 age group was 67.5 percent, which is above the OECD average of 59.2 percent. Those who are employed usually find themselves in temporary employment with low wages. While South Korea has a national pension service, the recent rise in the elderly population is putting a strain on the system.

The history of poverty in South Korea comes from the country’s war-torn society. The rapid economic growth during the 1960s and the 1970s came at the cost of workers’ rights and exploitation, and ultimately, the poor in South Korea. In 2020, South Korea still struggles to make equitable working conditions for the elderly and non-regular workers.

– YongJin Yi
Photo: Flickr