If you live in the Republic of Korea and speak Korean with citizens, you will often hear how it is the best place to live. People say their country is developed and convenient, and then prove this with comparisons to other countries. This is a recent phenomenon. When I came to South Korea 30 years ago, citizens disparaged the country and spoke of wanting to move to developed countries like the US where I am from. This vehement criticism reflected how the country brimmed with energy and developmental purpose. But as passports became universal here and people traveled to countries like the US, they experienced failed medical and transportation systems, the fear of violence, and other problems.
Meanwhile, Korea’s democracy, wealth, rule of law, respect for human rights, and infrastructure were developing. Citizens and residents of the Republic came to view Korea as a great place to live. When I left Seoul to study in the US for my Ph.D. in 2009, I felt like I had returned to a 2nd world country. However, despite the Republic’s obvious progress, it is still faced with many shortages and shortcomings that belie its development.
Some of these shortcomings have given rise to a current expression amongst Korea’s youth, “Hell Joseon,” or Hell Korea. Unlike their parents’ generation, young people are faced with job shortages and spiraling costs for homes. Citing national statistics, this newspaper recently reported a de facto unemployment rate of 27 percent for 15-29-year-olds. And even before the COVID crisis, job openings at major companies were limited. A lack of secure jobs propels many university students to study for civil service exams, though very few administrative positions exist. In contrast, the United States recently added 850,000 jobs in an employees’ market.
Korean young people are also being priced out of the housing market. During the Moon administration alone, apartment costs have risen over 50 percent in the Seoul metro area as real estate is Korea’s biggest market for investment. Government data from 2019 showed that upwards of 80 percent of Korean household wealth was tied up in nonfinancial assets, primarily real estate, compared to some 40 percent for Japanese and American households. Many Koreans priced out of the housing market live in cramped, one-room officetels. Money that could be saved for future homes is being eaten up by inflated food prices due to shortages. Prices on eggs and watermelon have risen over 100 percent recently. So despite high levels of education and digital literacy, Korea’s talented youth despair of finding jobs with decent wages or of owning their own apartments. This ownership is considered necessary for marriage and starting families.
Compounding these problems, many women are turned off by marriage prospects due to a variety of factors. These include the need to work for two-incomes, lingering wage discrimination, expectations to fulfill traditional roles, and inadequate support for raising children. The Republic’s birth rate has declined to the lowest level in OECD countries. Many adults live with their parents. Because so many Korean women opt out of marriage, many foreign brides have been imported. Although “foreign” parents married to Korean spouses recently accounted for some 5 percent of Korean newborns, almost all of these parents are still unable to immigrate due to ethno-nationalism. This speaks to the country’s continued shortages of internationalism and acceptance of “foreigners” who contribute to the nation’s development.
The country is also facing a shortage of COVID-19 vaccines and English information on getting vaccinated. While most of the developed world raced toward developing vaccines and inoculating its population, the Republic showed great vaccine hesitancy. It seems that the MRNA vaccines were too unproven, so the government opted to stingily procure shipments of AstraZeneca. Then the press begin reporting that Koreans experienced even more serious side effects from vaccination than other people. The vaccination rollout was stalled and halted. With rising infections of the delta variant and Level 4 restrictions, the summer opening we were promised is now shut down. Businesses, like my Bodystar Gym, continue to fail.
Apparently, vaccine reservations yesterday were shut down on official sites due to a lack of vaccines. It is indeed ironic that such a developed country could not produce, or afford to purchase, vaccines in a timely manner. And even for a higher-level Korean speaker like myself, negotiating the all-Korean reservation sites was very difficult. With so much English education and digital literacy, couldn’t the country provide English and foreign language options on its sites? This angers many foreign residents here, as do the frequent news reports that blame outbreaks on the international community. Vietnamese students were blamed for outbreaks in Boryeong, South Chungcheong Province. Foreign English academy teachers are blamed for recent outbreaks in Gyeonggi Province without consideration of the roles that the bars, the academies, and society at large play. More news coverage of the living and working conditions for these international residents is needed. But there is a shortage of news on these events.
Despite its development, the Republic of Korea still faces many obvious shortages. Though its citizens are rightfully proud, these shortages speak to developmental gaps that will account for national outcomes for years to come. Reports of these developmental gaps from foreign residents will also affect the country’s reputation in a dangerous world where healthy international relations are vital.
By Keenan Fagan
Keenan Fagan is a professor of required English at Dongguk University in Seoul. -- Ed.