“Life Is Wonderfull” is the boast from Korea Telecom that shimmers from the billboard-size TV screens that loom over downtown Seoul, but you might get an argument at street level about the accuracy of the company’s English slogan.
Many South Koreans see their lives as well short of wonderful. Workers put in the longest hours in any free-market economy. Students are pushed to study to exhaustion. And among the most advanced democracies, South Koreans remain among the stingiest when it comes to spending on leisure and fun.
The situation leaves South Koreans poised on the fringes of a collective burnout, a national state of stress and grumpiness that could complicate new President Lee Myung-bak’s contention that they all should work harder to reboot a sluggish economy.
“South Koreans are not trained to enjoy cultural life and leisure,” complained Yoon Chang-il, 47, a patent lawyer in Seoul who says his generation remains gripped by a fear of falling behind working peers and competitors. “Most people work late at night, both men and women, single and married, because there is a business culture of obsession and pressure. And when you go to the office on Saturdays, there are always people working.”
Statistics back up Yoon. Figures released last week by the 30-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show South Korean workers averaged 2,357 hours on the job in 2006, down from the hectic pace of the early 1990s but still far ahead of any of the other members of the group of free-market democracies. By comparison, American workers clocked 1,797 hours on average in 2006, the equivalent of 70 fewer eight-hour days.
Yet all those hours at the plant or office translate into skimpy rewards. South Korea landed near the bottom of the group’s list when it came to spending on cultural events, sports gear, package holidays and other leisure activities.
The numbers also show that the country remains driven by a strong belief in education, with millions of parents scrimping to pay for private schools and tutoring to give their children an edge in this intensely competitive country. South Korea spends a greater portion of national income on private education than any other country: 2.8% of gross domestic product, compared with 2.3% in the United States, according to the latest statistics.
No other country is even close.
South Korea also has the highest suicide rate in the organization’s study.
The dismal figures have prompted some soul-searching, with people wondering why, as Kim Young-hwan of the Korea Human Rights Foundation asked in a newspaper opinion piece, “Korean Society Demands Workaholics.”
But it’s probably a good thing that South Koreans claim to pay little attention to what their politicians say, because the new president thinks the problem is that they have lost their drive.
Lee revels in his biography as a self-made man, a scrapper who lifted himself from a street peddler to the role of chief executive of Hyundai Construction, one of the country’s fabled family-owned conglomerates, or chaebol.
“The young generation must work harder to develop themselves,” he said in his February inaugural address. “Teachers must teach their students even more earnestly,” and “business leaders and workers must be more ambitious.”
Lee is seeking to revive the collective will that made South Korea an Asian success story long before China and India emerged as the global economy’s headline acts. He has promised cuts in corporate taxes, looser business regulation and a more open door for foreign investment, an agenda that can now rely on the support of conservative allies who captured a majority of seats in parliamentary elections last week.
But some critics worry that the president’s background will lead him to favor policies that benefit export-oriented conglomerates over the small and medium-sized companies that struggle to supply them, and which employ more than 80% of the country’s workforce. They note that South Korea’s currency has plunged in value since Lee became president, a trend that favors big exporters such as Samsung and LG Electronics while hitting consumers with higher costs for imported commodities.
Many analysts contend that South Korea should focus instead on improving competitiveness and productivity at small and medium-sized companies. Among the measures are allowing more flexible work hours and making it easier for women to return to the workforce after giving birth.
“Yes, sometimes we should work harder, but most times we should work smarter,” said Moon Kook-hyun, a former international businessman who leads the opposition Creative Korea Party and was elected to parliament last week despite the conservative wave.
For 12 years leading up to his decision to enter politics in 2007, Moon was chief executive of Yuhan-Kimberly, the South Korean subsidiary of global paper products giant Kimberly-Clark. His tenure was notable for his willingness to go against the cultural grain by offering workers shorter hours, flexible shifts and a more balanced life.
“Government policies will determine whether Korea stays a muscle-based economy or is upgraded to a knowledge-based economy,” he said. “Once people start to work reasonable hours, then they can spend more time with their families, in their neighborhoods and especially on lifelong learning.”
The habit of working long hours at low levels of productivity is “like brainwashing for Koreans,” he said. “Our leaders need to be disconnected from their former ways.”
Special correspondent Jinna Park contributed to this report.