Korea struggled in 2014 to come to terms with the immense loss of life in the Sewol ferry accident in April. As Korea enters 2015, the national mood remains gloomy and anxiety hangs in the air. Predictions are risky, but 2015 shows signs of continuing anxiety, but with less gloom.
Politics. 2015 marks the third year of President Park Geun-hye’s term. Interest will gradually shift away from the president as politicians position themselves for the next presidential election in December 2017. The president’s popularity, already below 50 percent, will stay below that level
for the rest of the year. The long-term trend toward two equally balanced political parties will be challenged by growing interest among younger voters for an alternative. The opposition will remain in disarray as politicians struggle to present themselves as new. The conflict between the far-left and far-right will make the news as a sideshow because neither side has broad popular appeal.
Economy. The sudden drop in oil prices at the end of 2014 will help the economy in the first half of the year as domestic consumption increases. Lower oil prices will eventually lead to lower production, which will push prices up gradually in the second half of the year. The U.S. dollar will remain strong in 2015, and exports will also get a boost from a slowly declining won. Overall, economic growth should hit 4 percent, the highest since 2010. Though welcome, the good news will mask the challenges the economy faces as it struggles to fend off competition from China in key industries.
Diplomacy. 2015 will be an unpredictable year because of conflicting pressures. President Park will take a greater interest in foreign affairs as a way to delay lame duck status. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will feel more isolated as the U.S. and China begin to work more closely on a “North Korean strategy.” The need for a diplomatic success will push both leaders to reduce tensions through increased economic exchange, leading to a summit meeting in 2016. The same dynamic will be at work in relations with Japan as President Park focuses on results and the newly reelected Prime Minister Abe focuses on his legacy.
Society. The effects of high levels of education and increasing social tolerance will be felt as never before. Amid controversy toward the end of 2014 over the proposed Charter of Human Rights for Seoul Citizens, Christian organizations pressured Mayor Park Won-soon to delay enacting the charter, which caused pro-LGBT activists to stage an extended sit-in at City Hall. The openness of the demonstrations and the public support that they gathered in social media would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Greater social tolerance will lead to widespread criticism of plastic surgery for the first time, bringing an end to growth in that industry. The high suicide rate will become a major issue, forcing the government, companies and schools to address the issue.
Culture. Nostalgia will define culture in 2015, as the popularity of the newly released film “Ode to My Father” suggests. This is natural because the oldest members of the baby boomer generation, born between 1955 and 1963, will start turning 60 this year. Boomer retirement has already begun and will accelerate this year, creating a large new market for cultural products. K-pop and hallyu, meanwhile, will remain big in China, but will also find moderately renewed popularity in Japan as relations improve.
Education. Controversy over a proposed ban on native-speaker English teachers at preschools at the end of last year will continue in 2015. To stimulate domestic consumption, the government is looking for ways to reduce the financial burden on families. The idea will fail as the industry and parents push back. On university campuses, the first generation of students whose parents graduated from university in large numbers will demand more interesting classes and more amenities. The first wave of university closings and mergers will make the news as student demands increase.
Beneath the political gridlock and economic anxiety, 2015 will set the tone for the rest of the decade. The first half of the decade focused on recovering from the effects of the Great Recession and promoting “cool Korea.” The second half, by contrast, will focus on quality of life and individual development as baby boomers age and the educated 486 generation sends its children off to university. As more people become more open and tolerant, the top-down authoritarian streak in Korean culture will fade into the past.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Ann Arbor, Michigan. ― Ed.