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[Kim Myong-sik] Corporate culture brews alcoholism a la Korea

“This is a good thing. But it will hurt many people.” Chinese legend has it that Emperor Yao made this remark when he had the first taste of an alcoholic drink one of his subjects brewed. Over the millenniums since, the ancient sage-king’s worrisome prediction has proved right both in the East and West, and here in this country. Alcohol has never ceased to cause individual and social problems that far offset the pleasures it has generated in human beings. Just think of the numerous DUI cases that contribute to nearly half of all traffic deaths. 

And then there was the recent scandal in Washington, D.C., involving a ranking member of the Korean presidential entourage on a visit to the U.S. capital, and the bizarre case of sexual assault on the Korea Military Academy campus last month. People are rightly indignant that their tax money was spent on the alcohol consumed in these ghastly incidents.

Boxes of soju and beer were brought to an outdoor festival site where cadets profusely drank “poktanju” cocktails in the presence of supervising officers on May 22. This happened not on a weekend evening but at lunchtime on a Monday. News reports revealed that a female cadet who was unbearably drunk was raped by a male colleague who volunteered to escort her to her room. The “unprecedented” incident in the 65-year history of the KMA resulted in the retirement of its superintendent and disciplinary measures against 11 other officers.

Sexual abuse in the military has become a universal problem as the female presence increases in the armed forces of many countries. The growing frequency of sexual assaults in the U.S. military forced President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to a vow a crackdown and special preventive efforts these past weeks. Yet, I can hardly imagine binge drinking like what happened on the KMA campus taking place at West Point or any other military compound in the world.

At this point, I am inclined to suspect that we have a corporate culture both in the military and civilian societies that is particularly kind to alcohol. While alcohol has the effect of lowering behavioral restraint in individuals, it boosts a sense of solidarity among co-drinkers. Everybody experiences the rise of we-feeling around the table against others at the next one, as so many bar room brawls testify. Besides, alcohol helps people overcome adverse conditions, such as in war, the quality the Chinese emperor might have noted.

Let’s look back on the past decades since the war that we call the age of “compressed development,” the time when a military-backed authoritarian rule led the nation’s economic advancement. The military modus operandi spread to the civilian industrial community which happened to hire many retired officers as mid-level and higher employees while most major public enterprises had ex-generals in the top management. “Wihayeo!” ― the military equivalent of “cheers” ― became the standard toast, reflecting the permeation of military culture into civilian society.

A company, battalion or regimental commander regularly holds parties with junior officers and NCOs drinking their brains and hearts out. Strong leadership capacity is proven when the commander soberly starts business as usual the next morning while his staff members are struggling with various degrees of hangover. Any acts of indiscretion by drunken officers are taken care of by the commander, usually with light admonitions. A similar process is practiced in private organizations between the owner-CEO and senior employees, often including union leaders.

In the private sector, the generous expense account allows the host of the night’s company party, or “hoesik,” to order more expensive liquors to fix poktanju. Parties take place in “room salons” in Gangnam when they are held for external business promotion with important clients or officials invited. Aged whiskeys and brandies of famous brands are consumed by the boxes and the merrymaking develops into the “second round” of a complex meaning.

An unbelievable 7,000 “daeri unjeon” firms are in operation across the country, employing up to 100,000 men and women, who drive drunken people to their homes in their own cars. I am really curious of any comparable figures in the statistics from, say, OECD member states. By the way, latest OECD statistics show Koreans’ alcohol consumption remains at the average level of about 9 liters a year, ranked 22nd among the 34 member countries. The difference is that Koreans mostly drink in groups outside their homes, thus the possibility of more alcohol-related mishaps.

There is something definitely wrong with the drinking culture in the Republic of Korea. One example is the reckless drinking contests in welcoming parties for university entrants where even fatalities occur. Seniors attempt to teach juniors what the essence of collegian life is by pouring them glass after glass of poktanju. They are imitating the adult drinking patterns a little too early while they are not physically ready yet after the rigors of exam preparation. Still, the worst is political drinking.

After the presidential elections and other polls in between, the winning group celebrates their victory pompously for weeks and months with numerous willing “sponsors” vying for early dates. Such parties have been occasionally exposed when drunken guests and hosts create ugly scenes or when a disgruntled campaigner reveals to the media how “money showered over them” through these get-togethers.

In any society, alcohol is a lubricant for corruption. In this country where alcoholism had traditionally been confused with masculine virtue and where the organizational culture utilized it as a sort of catalyst for solidarity, drinking has well served the purpose of warming human relations and paving the way for the passage of illicit favors. We can just imagine what might have happened over the past 100 days after the inauguration of President Park.

The president is rather lucky if the Yoon Chang-jung scandal was a vaccination for her administration against the virus of alcohol. However, it largely belongs to the man’s world that she may not know too well. The congratulatory phase could rather be an introductory period before the real decaying stage that invariably starts at the halfway point of a presidential tenure.

President Park may well consider an alcohol-free Blue House or a general abstinence campaign for the entire bureaucracy, which will fit well with her people’s happiness framework. She certainly has an advantage in this task as the nation’s first female head of state. 

By Kim Myong-sik

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. ― Ed.
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