On October 25, the Hamilton Lugar School’s Institute for Korean Studies hosted After the Miracle: The Present and Future of Korea’s Economy and Society, a conference that brought together over a dozen experts to describe South Korea’s unprecedented economic growth starting in 1960 and to provide possible solutions to some of that nation’s current socioeconomic issues. Neoliberalism, globalization, economic change, and social conflict, as well as the connections between those topics, were discussed in lectures, short presentations, and a Q and A panel hosted by the Dean of the Hamilton Lugar School, Lee Feinstein.
In the keynote speech, Dae Il Kim, Professor of Economics at Seoul National University, traced how the Korean economy grew and why, since the 1990s, that growth has significant slowed down. Professor Kim made the argument that, while the primary cause of economic growth was the heavy intervention of dictatorial governments to promote exports, the cause of Korea’s economic slowdown has been the growth and spread of populism predicated on bitterness at perceived injustices.
This bitterness was augmented by government corruption that took the form of the arrest or impeachment of several government officials in successive administrations, as well as by the government’s favoring of certain conglomerates known as chaebols over other firms.
The June 29 Declaration of Roh Tae-woo, in 1987, was the first stage of adopting populism as official government policy, Kim argued. As populism continued to gain influence, the government taxed large companies and protected small- and medium-sized companies without giving them the incentive to grow. This led, Kim continued, to the effective reallocation of high-wage jobs in large companies to low-wage jobs in small companies.
Further, the government’s intervention in the banking sector reduced productivity in that area of the economy, and the combination of a high minimum wage, a cap on weekly work hours, and the strength of unions, particularly in the area of securing lifetime employment, combined to increase labor costs, harm small businesses, and produce low employment growth.
Kim pointed out other areas where he believed government action has been harmful to economic growth, including the allocation of 50% of social policy expenditure to the elderly and only 6% to active labor market policies aimed at increasing employment, as well as the stratification of educational opportunity based on family income. Government regulation in the area of education has ironically only made the situation worse. To conclude, Kim argued to stop populist intervention and deregulate in order to let the market work to generate wealth.
Other speakers had different perspectives on what socio-economic issues were most pressing and how best to solve them. Yoonkyung Lee, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, focused on the state of workers in today’s gig economy, also called the post post-industrial Korea. She pointed out that mass production and mass employment are no longer the central facts of the economy, and work has become unstable, scarce, and compartmentalized. 30 million Koreans either have no job or are in a precarious work situation, and these citizens constitute a labor underclass with erratic incomes and minimal social protection.
25% of Koreans are self-employed, a massive share of the economy, and these citizens tend to be in particularly vulnerable economic sectors like retail or food service. In gig positions themselves, which are supposed to provide freedom, workers become prisoners to unpredictable and irregular work schedules, and they are subject to extensive control, monitoring, opaque management structures, and exploitative payment schemes. She emphasized that Korea has a particularly large share of non-regular workers and that they lack social protections. Only 10% of workers belong to unions, she added, and the vast majority of workers do not have the sorts of protections that union workers have.
Other talks focused on the middle class and the way that chaebols have changed in recent decades. Myungji Yang, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, argued that the middle class gained ground after 1960 due to stable employment in large businesses and investment in real estate, which generated tremendous wealth. Today, the middle class is declining as middle-class workers lack stable employment and can’t afford to buy homes and gain wealth through real estate. The middle class, she said, particularly young people, experience pervasive feelings of insecurity and resentment due to the rising costs of housing and education and the instability of work. She ended by asking what the future of middle class politics is if it is determined by the frustrated and economically deprived young generation.
Yongseok Shin, Professor of Economics at Washington University in St. Louis, and Sharon J. Yoon, Assistant Professor of Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, both discussed chaebols, which have been crucial to Korea’s economic development. Shin pointed out that the top chaebols have establishments in 36 of 73 total industries, an enormous presence, and that they are more productive than other types of firms. They tend not to dominate a single industry, he added, but they often become involved in industries that are closely upstream to what their largest establishments produce.
Yoon focused on the ways that chaebols have changed since the 1997 financial crash, particularly the way they have expanded to foreign markets and how that expansion has affected corporate culture. Based on ethnographic research at a Korean chaebol in China, she found extensive discrimination against Korean Chinese, who tended to be women who worked in administrative capacities that depended on soft skills. Expats from Korea, on the other hand, tended to occupy higher-level management positions and were rewarded for their hard skills. There were few opportunities for advancement for Korean Chinese and, frustrated, they tended to quit. She argued that interactional dynamics should be more deeply studied in order to see how policies are implemented on the ground in chaebols.
The day ended with a policy roundtable, but not before there was a musical performance by a trio of Jacobs Schools students on guitar, keyboard, and drums. They played three contemporary Korean songs, two of which were from popular movies.
To conclude, Dean Lee Feinstein led a wide-ranging discussion that included questions from the audience. The speakers, both academics and policy experts, dove into the repression of civil rights for national economic benefits, the public’s lack of trust in the government, generational conflicts in terms of attitudes toward North Korea, the search for new engines of economic growth, and the conflict between Japan and Korea in the arena of trade, among other topics. Attendees came away from the conference with a broad understanding of Korea’s economic growth and the benefits and challenges that such rapid growth produced.
The conference was part of a broader push that the Institute for Korean Studies is making to enhance the opportunities available to undergraduates, graduate students, and members of the community. The Institute, directed by Korea Foundations Professor Seung-kyung Kim, has three other major opportunities for undergraduates. The first is a research exchange program with George Washington University, which provides the opportunity for undergraduates to research a topic of their choice, write a paper, and present their findings to both IU and GW students in the spring. The program teaches crucial skills, Kim says, such as “how to collect data” and “how to come up with a research question.” Students meet with postdoctoral fellows every month for guidance, and each participant is also mentored by a faculty member. Kim’s own student is writing a research paper on the effect Korean reunification would have on the South Korean economy.
Second, the Institute has initiated a Korean speech contest and encourages participants at the beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. The winner of each level participates in the Midwest regional competition, which last spring was held in Chicago. An IU undergraduate, Shuyaho Wang, was awarded first place in the Midwest competition with her speech “Korean Education Culture.” The prize included a scholarship to study Korean at Kyung Hee University or Sungkyunkwan University, both in Korea, and $800 toward airfare.
And third, the Institute has developed a Korean essay contest. The essay, to be written in English, is about a book assigned by the Institute. This year’s book, translated into English, is The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
The Institute has also pushed to develop an MA in East Asian Studies with a focus on Korea. Rare for master’s programs, the MA provides full tuition remission and a modest stipend for its students. There are currently four MA students in the program, which is designed to be completed in two years. After their degree, master’s students are prepared to pursue a PhD or to work for NGOs, the government, think tanks, or other institutions.
IU alumni in Korea were crucial to creating the Institute for Korean Studies and for endowing Kim’s professorship. Professor Kim is grateful to these alumni, the Korea Foundation, and IU, which combined have provided the funds necessary, she says, to “make this really vibrant kind of programming possible.”
Vibrant programming, along with mentorship of undergraduate and graduate students, makes the Institute for Korean Studies a special place at the Hamilton Lugar School. Kim herself has mentored several students since the Institute’s founding, and the opportunity to guide enthusiastic students through their IU years has made her “very, very happy,” she says.
Students, faculty, staff, and members of the community who want to learn more about Korea and investigate opportunities offered by the Institute for Korean Studies can visit their website here.