This is the last official post about the journey in Korea. For each topic I present some background information and my personal experiences. To begin with, I already wrote a short post of a few facts and a longer first résumé.
- 1 High focus on education
- 2 Korean military
- 3 Korean conflict
- 4 Chaebols vs international companies
- 5 The role of women
- 6 The strive for efficiency
- 7 Miscellaneous
- 8 Comparing Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo
- 9 Personal gains
- 10 Sources
High focus on education
If you’ll read a little bit through the Wikipedia article about South Korea, it’s very likely that you’ll get the feeling that the Koreans made many smart decisions over the last decades that boosted their economy, but also other indexes of wealth. One focus lays definitely on education, just like in Japan, but which puts a lot of pressures on the students:
A strong investment in education, a militant drive for success as well as the passion for excellence has helped the resource poor country rapidly grow its economy over the past 60 years from a war torn wasteland. South Korea’s zeal for education and its students’ desires to get into a prestigious university is one of the highest in the world, as the entrance into a top tier higher educational institution leads to a prestigious, secure and well-paid white collar job with the government, banks, a major South Korean conglomerate such as Samsung, Hyundai or LG Electronics. With incredible pressure on high school students to secure places at the nation’s best universities, its institutional reputation and alumni networks are strong predictors of future career prospects. The top three universities in South Korea, often referred to as “SKY”, are Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. Intense competition for top grades and academic pressure to be the top student is deeply ingrained in the psyche of South Korean students at a young age. Yet with only so many places at universities and even fewer places at top-tier companies, many young people remain disappointed and are often unwilling to lower their sights with the result of many feeling as underachievers. There is a major cultural taboo in South Korean society attached to those who have not achieved formal university education where those who don’t hold university degrees face social prejudice and are often looked down by others as second-class citizens resulting fewer opportunities for employment, improvement of one’s socioeconomic position and prospects for marriage.
Like depicted in the article, Korea has the highest rate of young adults with a bachelor degree among OECD members:
A few insights about teaching of kindergarden children can be found here:
But lo and behold, these five- and six-year-old Korean children were reading and writing at essentially the equivalent of a first-grade level in the U.S. Forget at what cost these skills were acquired. The point is, they were.
A study from 2014 emphasizes on the cultural differences:
We find that AA (Asian American) compared with EA (European American) high school students experience more interdependence with their mothers and pressure from them, but that the pressure does not strain their relationship with their mothers. Furthermore, following failure, AAs compared with EAs are more motivated by their mothers, and AAs are particularly motivated by pressure from their mothers when it conveys interdependence.
… and another one explains the differences between asian and non-asian results by their effort:
We find that the Asian-American educational advantage over whites is attributable mainly to Asian students exerting greater academic effort and not to advantages in tested cognitive abilities or socio-demographics. We test explanations for the Asian–white gap in academic effort and find that the gap can be further attributed to (i) cultural differences in beliefs regarding the connection between effort and achievement and (ii) immigration status.
Calongne writes about several negative effects, e. g. higher unhappiness among students compared to the OECD average, and concludes:
So while other countries may envy South Korea’s positions in the league tables, there are cultural factors that mean this focus on hard work probably can’t be replicated elsewhere, and given the societal collateral damage, probably wouldn’t want to.
Another country that shares some similarities regarding historic bad economic foundations and high educational performance nowadays is Finland. Choi compares Korea and Finland in an interesting article and says:
Finnish culture values intrinsic motivation and the pursuit of personal interest. It has a relatively short school day rich with school-sponsored extracurriculars, because culturally, Finns believe important learning happens outside of the classroom. […] But that does not except it from academic rigor, motivated by the country’s history trapped between European superpowers.
And she finally brings forth one major difference for students in the US:
One reason we haven’t made much progress academically over the past 50 years is because it hasn’t been economically crucial for American kids to master sophisticated problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in order to survive.
As a graduate exchange student of one of the three top univerisities I had a high workload, but also witnessed a low difficulty of the exams which resulted in very good grades, which was also experienced by other graduate exchange students from the KU (Korea University). Another exchange student at the KAIST university didn’t report a high workload, but also good grades. According to several people of the KU, undergraduate students in general had much less to do and still performed well, and some even made fun of the low requirements to earn good ratings.
Another literally protruding fact is the interconnection between the universities and chaebols. Most of these modern and advanced buildings carry the name of the conglomerates (“Hyundai Motor Hall”, “LG Posco Hall”) and some of the students mentioned they head up to work for one of them. At the end I got the feeling that for some of them it might be a very straight-forward way to these companies which was planned in advance and build up along their time at the university.
The Republic of Korea, with both regular and reserve military force numbering 3.7 million regular personnel among a total national population of 50 million people, has the second highest number of soldiers per capita in the world, after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
And here you find the second focus. Due to tensions with North Korea, South Korea is heavily militarized. Even children can get an early taste of it. The military service is mandatory for nearly all men, and depending on the unit the quality of life differs widely, so there’s also competition for the best ones. This brings some problems with it:
South Korean law dictates that all men must fulfill the country’s mandatory military service once they reach the age of 20. This is a concern for many male South Korean students who wish to advance their education, including some international students from South Korea. […]
“Personally, spending 2 years of my one and only youth in the military and watching my colleagues studying, graduating and doing internships makes me feel dismal and empty,” said Gyu Myeong Lim (22), a second-year Accounting and Finance student who was discharged from the army this January.
Of course, there are different voices:
“The 2 years was indeed a long period of time, but I surely learned lessons,” said Wonjong Lee (22), a third-year BBA student who was discharged in April last year. “While I was serving in the army, I learned to be more realistic. The 2 years taught me who I was, what I was good at and how I could improve,” said Lee. “To give an advice to prospective soldiers, I recommend [South Korean] guys to go as early as possible,” he added.
In combination with a strict and stressing learning in school and university, it takes males until the mid of their 20ies before they leave their heteronomous environment.
Apart from one student who served as a parachutist all males moaned about their military service (which also includes working as a police man). Many of them said it was a waste of their time and if they’d have the option they wouldn’t do it. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask them if they think the mandatory service is necessary to counter the treats from North Korea. If I can collect more opinions, I’ll update this post.
Personally, I think that the military service adds to the hierarchical structure of school and later in companies, which in consequence shapes especially the male Korean to be obedient to endure several burdens. With this in mind, it’s surprising that the Koreans were very friendly overall and didn’t became cold-hearted, at least on the outside. But the more I think the less I’m certain whether I’ve seen the true nature of any of them. And at the end it might be the women who suffer the most, as we will see here in a later chapter.
While the Korean War plays a vital role in the life of North Koreans, the younger South Koreans don’t care that much if any at all.
On Quora.com, the question “What do South Koreans think of North Korea?” is discussed, and I can confirm some of the experiences the authors made. Further down on the page there are more questions regarding the Korean conflict which address especially the threats of an upcoming war.
I don’t want to go into detail about things that can be read on the internet, but what Koreans told me about it. Nearly all Koreans I’ve met want a reunification – sooner or later (when economical burdens should be easier to carry out). Some mentioned they’re interested how the Germans resolved their conflict, but I often told them that in my opinion the economical and cultural differences of todays two Koreas is much higher than back in the late 80ies with East and West Germany, and usually they agreed upon that. I have the feeling that to some degree it’s what they were taught and they never really questioned it, but to some extent they also didn’t really care. At least no one tried to argue with me about that, but maybe that’s again a cultural thing.
But at the end only little of them seem to have any clue how to solve the status quo. One Korean also brought China and US into the debate and doesn’t see any resolution of the conflict in the near future at all.
I didn’t really ask for them what they think of the suffering North Koreans. Again, if I get a few answers to that, I’ll update this post.
In sum, I had the feeling that the minority of the people I asked thought in deep how the Korean conflict could be terminated. Maybe it’s due to a lack of interest in politics in general. But this is only a speculation and I hope to get more valuable answers on this topic.
Chaebols vs international companies
A chaebol […] is a South Korean form of business conglomerate. They are typically global multinationals and own numerous international enterprises, controlled by a chairman with power over all the operations.[…] The chaebol have also played a significant role in South Korean politics. […] Since 2000, Hyundai has played a role in the thawing of North Korean and South Korean relations.
And so we have our connection to the previous chapter, also regarding the effort:
Workers commit to long hours, most notably on weekends and holidays, in order to appease their superiors. Company outings and drinking sessions tend to be compulsory as to foster a sense of family and belonging among employees. Employers believe that enhancing a common bond between them would translate into prosperity and productivity for the company. Other practices that would be uncommon for Western workplaces to engage in include gift-giving to employees and arranging dates for workers in search of relationships or marriage. The chaebol are notoriously hierarchical. As such, it is unusual for an individual to challenge or question the decision-making of his or her boss.
The criticism section (Emergence and inflation, Interntal market transaction accountability, “Too big too fail”, Monopolistic behavior, Government ties and abuse of power) shows that chaebols are big players and have a large influence on any Korean. In 2012, the top ten conglomerates made about 76 % of Korea’s GDP. The biggest player, Samsung Group, acts this way:
Samsung Electronics has around 300,000 employees. And though it is the largest division of the broader Samsung Group, it is still just one part of the chaebol whole. Samsung Heavy Industries makes ships and oil platforms. Samsung Everland operates South Korea’s largest amusement park. There is also Samsung Life Insurance, group joint ventures with oil giants Total and BP, a hospitality wing that includes the Shilla luxury hotels and duty-free shops, and various financial services wings that do venture capital, investments and credit cards.
South Koreans can be born in a Samsung-owned medical center, grow up learning to read and write with the help of Samsung tablets and go on to attend the Samsung-affiliated Sungkyunkwan University.
It doesn’t end there. They may then live in a Samsung-built apartment complex, fitted out with the company’s appliances and electronics. South Koreans can even end up at a Samsung funeral parlor when they die.
Many scandals and criticism revolve especially around leaders of chaebols. But if asked a young sociology student, she replies:
“It is my dream to work for a large company, and it’s also my family’s dream,” she admits.
“It’s a paradox. People will talk smack about the chaebol, but they still want to work for them.”
As shown above, the chaebols are everywhere. Many of my events dealt with sight-seeings or activities related to chaebols, e. g. the trip in Everland or the visit of the Lotte Aquarium. In my global strategy class, many business cases were applied to chaebols and japanese keiretsus (business groups that share some similarities with chaebols). You can’t go to Korea withouth being exposed to them in some way.
There’s much written about advantages and disadvantages of having such powerful conglomerates. I had one reasoned thought regarding the influence on universities. At least for the business faculty, I have the feeling that financial aid or even sponsoring of buildings and maintenance should be much less controversial as in most cases business students will seek to work in companies afterwards anyway, no matter if the institution is financed by the government or by enterprises. In Germany, there’s sometimes a debate about how much companies are allowed to influence universities, measured by financial share (in the article it is said that 80 % of funding for universities comes from the state). For South Korea, a study from 2016 concludes:
The findings of this study indicate that university researchers can enhance their acquisition not only of technological knowledge, but also of scientific knowledge by developing and maintaining a strong working relationship with company partners in university–industry research collaborations.
The role of women
The elevation in social status of women has significantly improved over the last 30 years due to the modernization of society today compared with olden Korea that was deeply rooted in the teachings of Confucius. Today, the social status of women has become practically equal to men’s in social sectors such as legal rights, education, and health. There are however still major inequalities in workforce and political participation.
There are still stereotypes surrounding Korean women. Example of such stereotypes consists of the following, having the ability to cook, being obedient to their husband and that giving birth is a duty to be fulfilled.
As the text introduces, there’s much done on gender equality, but also much left to do. According to the Global Gender Gap Index on Wikipedia, Korea ranks 111th out of 144. However:
The growing number of women receiving a college education has meant that their sex role differs from that of their mothers and grandmothers. Many college-educated women plan independent careers and challenge the right of parents to choose a marriage partner. […] The number of employed married women, however, increased by approximately 12.6 percent annually in the years since 1977. [… The] underworld of abuse and exploitation had begun to be criticized and exposed by women’s activists.
Other topics can be found in the Wikipedia article; I’ll concentrate on the opinions I got from Koreans.
In my talks about rights of women (mainly with Korean women) most of them confirmed handycaps in the workplace, but this seems to depend highly on the firm – the more traditional, chaebol-like companies are doing worse than firms from abroad that operate in Korea. One woman said that when she worked in HR she hasn’t seen any disadvantages; another woman said she wants to leave Korea as she hopes to have better career options in Europe.
A female professor told she was discriminated against based on her gender for several years at the university and female professors are still in an obvious minority today. While she acknowledged the de facto equality in the education system, she also emphasized the traditional role model of women that’s still upheld today and says that as a female going for a PhD is often a marriage-killer.
A male Korean told me that women prefer to date e. g. Japanese men as they hope to be treated better by them.
The strive for efficiency
This might be a more general asian urban thing, but anyways: it seemed to me that everything has to be done efficient and also clean. Examples:
- In the lectures, the Koreans arrived and left often very punctual. Mostly it were the international students that came late to class, but were also likely to stay longer to talk to a professor.
- Again in the lectures, as there are often no trash bins, the Koreans also leave the room without a left of waste. After the lecture you can barely say if anyone has been in the room before.
- If you go eating with them, it often appeared to me all of a sudden when they decided to leave. While I’m more used to situations where you first order the bill, pay and stay for a few more minutes to talk I often encountered the situations that in less than one minute you pack your stuff, do your payment and immediately leave.
- That’s more known about the Japanese, but it also applies for the Korean: the public transportation just works perfect.
- An international student critized that Koreans try to solve every problem with technology. To be honest, I can’t remember the example any more; I’ll update this post if I get reminded of it.
Some miscellaneous facts or experiences:
- You can rent (or even buy) digital films on YouTube and they’re quite cheap (I thought it was about 1000 to 3000 WON). This feature seems to exist for a longer time now, at least for Canada. I didn’t try it as I had no need for it, but would keep it in mind if I should go there again.
- Google Maps doesn’t work there to its full potential.
- Although South Korea is the world leader in internet connectivity, in 2012 it’s censorship was comparable to Russia and Egypt.
- The delivery service of fast food chains like McDonalds seems to be around since at least five years.
- Koreans like to get Pokémon plushies out of claw machines which are widespread among Seoul. Even in Japan I haven’t seen any machine filled with Pokémon.
Comparing Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo
- The cityscapes are very technologized. Especially in Shanghai the majority of the buildings were blinking and changing colors all the time, making it a restless city. Tokyo was more astonishing by its sheer amount of skyscrapers.
- Cute figures and images – not only Tokyo is Kawaii, but also Korea and China are infected:
The Asian countries of China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand either produce kawaii items for international consumption or have websites that cater for kawaii as part of the youth culture in their country. Kawaii has taken on a life of its own, spawning the formation of kawaii websites, kawaii home pages, kawaii browser themes and finally, kawaii social networking pages. While Japan is the origin and Mecca of all things kawaii, artists and businesses around the world are imitating the kawaii theme.
For Korea, it’s the Kakao friends that fulfill a similar function.
- Tokyo and Shanghai are two extremes regarding order and chaos in traffic with Korea in between. While nearly all Japanese waited on red traffic lights and there were only few mopeds and bikes, but tons of automobiles, Shanghai was the exact opposite – thousands of e-mopeds that pass you all of a sudden on the pavement and crossing of red lights even by cars. I found it hard to believe that without resistance to high adrenaline levels and continous attention you’ll make it through the day in Shanghai.
What did I learn? Basically the following:
- I thought a lot about the low criminality in Korea and have several guesses that I might evaluate in further discussions. First of all, all Koreans are so busy that they don’t have time for crime. As stated above, they always have to learn or work much (and party a lot as described in my first résumé). Second, the face-saving phenomena works as a social control: it’s embarassing to offend common morals. Third, the cultural mantra is a bit like the American one, you simply have to work hard enough and you’ll reach your goals. You don’t need to steal to become wealthy, you only have to keep your track of obedient learning.
- Many discussions about the power of chaebols were thought-provoking regarding corporatocracy (and the amount of fictional corporatocracies on Wikipedia show it’s a fascinating theme), it’s bypassing of democracy and, eventually, global monopolies and dominations of few conglomerates.
- While they might not be the biggest innovators, the Koreans are fast and good copiers. Many TV series remind me of western ones, but all are produced in Korea. My dormitory had a TV in the kitchen and as I switched through about 70 channels maybe five of them showed programs in English, the rest in Korean.
- The working infrastructure is a heavy relief in the everyday life. Using the public transportation just makes fun as you know it’s cheap and it get’s you wherever you want fast and on time. It makes you very flexible and you simply don’t have to adjust your life to the timetables.
- The collectivist culture exists. If you go out eating, you often get a big plate where everyone graps his food from. Everyone pays the same price and everyone eats until he or she has enough.
- Seoul itself offers a ton of possible events – Tripadivsor finds several hundred distinct “things to do”. Apart from that, other metropolises like Busan and Jeju Island (a World Heritage Site) are very different from Seoul and therefore offer interesting or even fascinating settings. All in all you can spend a long time in Korea exploring the backgrounds of many environments. And the best: many festivals (e. g. the Lotus Lantern, Seoul Rose or Seoul Drum) are free of charge.
- But after all I read and my talks with Koreans I conclude that being an exchange student puts you into an extraordinary position – mostly, you have some privileges and zero disadvantages. Being a pupil or a regular worker will put you in a much worse situation where you simply have to obey and don’t be treated as an individual.
- In sum, I definitely recommend to visit Seoul during an exchange semester or, maybe even better, two. You can see many things and as a Non-Asian you get in contact with many cultural differences that let’s you think about your own origin.
Other personal gains will take some time to reveal. It’s an ongoing process of adjusting the new experiences with the existing worldview. In maybe one year I can add a few more things that simply must develop.
Kakao friends – By Studio Kei, via flickr.com