Human Development Index: 0.916, Rank: 23 (rank out of 189 countries): (compared to 1 for Norway, 13 for the United States and 189 for Niger). The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income per capita indicators. A country scores higher HDI when the life expectancy at birth is longer, the education period is longer, and the income per capita is higher [Source: United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report]

Health: Life expectancy at birth (years): 83.0
Education: Expected years of schooling (years): 16.5
Income/Composition of Resources: Gross national income (GNI) per capita (constant 2017 PPPUS$): 43,044
Inequality: Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI): 0.815
Gender: Gender Development Index (GDI): 0.936

Work, employment and vulnerability: Employment to population ratio ( percent ages 15 and older): 60.4
Human Security: Homicide rate (per 100,000 people): 0.6
Trade and Financial Flows: Exports and imports ( percent of GDP): 76.7
Mobility and Communication: Internet users, total ( percent of population): 95.9
Environmental sustainability: Carbon dioxide emissions, production emissions per capita (tonnes): 12.9
Demography: Total population (millions) (Data refers to 2030): 51.2
Socio-economic sustainability: Skilled labour force ( percent of labour force) 86.0

Emergence of Social Classes in Post-Korean-War Korea

Rapid economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization have caused a profound transformation in the class structure of South Korean society since the end of the Korean War. One of the most important changes has been the emergence of a "new" middle class consisting of civil servants, salaried white-collar workers in large private companies, and professionals with specialized training, such as engineers, health care professionals, university professors, architects, and journalists. The number of factory workers also has grown impressively. According to figures provided by Kim Kyong-Dong, a sociologist at Seoul National University, the portion of the population that can be labeled "new middle class" (excluding self-employed professionals) grew from 6.6 percent to 17.7 percent between 1960 and 1980. The proportion of industrial workers expanded from 8.9 percent to 22.6 percent of the labor force during the same period. Independent farmers and members of the rural lower class, including agricultural laborers, experienced corresponding declines in percentage: together, they accounted for 64 percent of the population in 1960 but only 31.3 percent in 1980. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The urban lower class, consisting to a great extent of recent arrivals from rural parts of the country living in squatter areas, composed an estimated 6.6 percent of the population in 1960 and 5.9 percent in 1980. An "old" middle class consisting of shopkeepers and small business proprietors in urban and rural areas, self-employed professionals, and self-employed craftsmen grew modestly from 13 percent to 20.8 percent of the population between 1960 and 1980. Kim's figures also include what he euphemistically calls an "upper-middle" class — the country's economic and social elites, whose numbers grew from 0.9 percent to 1.8 percent of the population between 1960 and 1980.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Major symbols of social status include the size of one's condominium or house, the location of one's residence, chauffeur-driven large automobiles, style and quality of dress, membership in a golf club, and the use of honorifics in speech. According to the government classification, residential space between eighteen and 25.7 p'yong (one p'yong equals 3.95 square yards) is regarded as medium-sized housing. People in the middle and upper-middle classes tend to live in apartment units of over thirty p'yong. The precise number of p'yong of one's condominium often is interpreted as a barometer of one's wealth. Academic degrees such as a doctorate and professional occupations such as medicine also symbolize higher social status. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Discrimination and Inequality in South Korea

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: South Koreans have grown increasingly distressed over the widening gap between rich and poor, while also worrying about the world’s financial crises, which many officials here attribute in part to profligate welfare spending. South Koreans used to depend on personal savings and family members for help in their old age or when jobless. But that tradition was shaken when the financial crisis of the late 1990s effectively ended guaranteed lifetime employment. Today, South Korea has one of the fast-growing rates of income inequality among the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In a July survey by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, South Koreans cited income redistribution as the second most important political issue, after job creation. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times August 24, 2011]

Another way of viewing contemporary South Korean society is to consider the sources of social inequality. In a 1988 article, Korea specialist David I. Steinberg focused on several of these sources, which include the disparity in living standards between urban and rural areas — the main motivation behind sustained urban migration. Although the Saemaul Movement was successful in narrowing the gap between rural and urban incomes during the mid1970s , disparities subsequently reemerged. Steinberg also noted that despite the land reform of the late 1940s, tenancy has grown, and that by 1981 as many as 46 percent of all farmers were "full or partial tenants." [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Hostile government policies toward labor unions in the 1960s and 70s kept workers' wages low — and internationally competitive. In Steinberg's words, "the Korean worker has been asked to suffer for the good of society as a whole . . . ." Activists who tried to organize independent unions were harassed, arrested, imprisoned, and frequently tortured by the authorities. During the liberalization that began in 1987, however, the government permitted the establishment of independent labor unions and assumed a new attitude, at times approaching neutrality in labor-management disputes.

Discrimination on both the community and individual levels against the people of North Cholla and South Cholla provinces remains another important source of inequality. Disparities in per capita income between Seoul and the provinces of North and South Kyongsang had virtually disappeared by the early 1980s, but per capita incomes in the capital were still 1.8 times those in the Cholla region in 1983. As in most other Asian (and most Western) countries, gender differences remain another source of major inequalities.

During the 1980s, the concept of minjung (the masses) became prominent in the thinking and rhetoric of radical students, militant labor unionists, activists identified with the Christian churches, and progressive but generally non-Marxist intellectuals. Although its meaning is vague, minjung encompasses not only the urban proletariat in the Marxist sense but also the groups, including farmers, small bourgeoisie, students, and skilled craftsmen, who allegedly have been exploited by the country's numerically small ruling class (the military elite, top bureaucrats, and big business). National elites were viewed as collaborating with foreign (particularly United States and Japanese) capitalists in order to create a situation of permanent dependence on foreign capital. The emphasis on neocolonialist themes by minjung spokespeople drew deeply on South Korean populist, nationalist, and xenophobic sentiments to place the origin of social evils outside the Korean race.

Chaebols and Their Grip on South Korean Society

Government control of the financial system created substantial inequalities between the favored chaebol — South Korea’s massive business conglomerates — which at least until the late 1980s had access to credit at low rates, and capital-starved smaller businesses that had to rely on nonbank sources of credit. Official support of the chaebol as the engines of South Korean economic growth and industrialization was clearly reflected in the differences between salaries and working conditions of employees in large and small enterprises. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Devin DeCiantis and Ivan Lansberg wrote in The Atlantic: It wasn’t until the 1990s that critics began to point out some of the trade-offs associated with the country’s unflinching commitment to the chaebol. The most forceful claims focused on inequality — in terms of rising wealth differentials as well as unfair competition between traditional small businesses and family-run conglomerates. In financial markets, foreign investors also began to take notice. The term “Korea discount” was coined to describe the phenomenon of South Korean companies trading at roughly half the price of their Japanese peers. Market analysts have identified several possible reasons for this, many of which are a direct commentary on the chaebol: opaque governance, higher leverage, flagrant self-dealing (the use of privilege for profit), and rampant nepotism. [Source: Devin DeCiantis and Ivan Lansberg, The Atlantic, March 13, 2015]

“A renegotiation of the fundamental relationship between the chaebol and South Korean society now seems inevitable” but “it is difficult for policymakers to conceive of growing the country’s economy and its global influence without their franchise players. Which raises the question: Is it even possible to achieve lofty development goals without explicit state sponsorship for a privileged class of entrepreneurs? Based on our experience studying and advising family businesses around the world, the evidence is strongly affirmative. Large family-run enterprises have fueled economic development in countries like India, Colombia, and Lebanon in the absence of explicit state support.

“Family-controlled companies can outperform their non-family counterparts for many of the same reasons that South Korea was able to outmaneuver its regional peers during the first 40 years of chaebol-driven growth. They are more likely to pursue longer-term strategies that go well beyond the bottom line — often, for example, providing their communities with new roads, bridges, schools, affordable housing, hospitals, and even telecommunications networks. South Korea was able to outmaneuver its regional peers during the first 40 years of chaebol-driven growth.

“In short, while the evidence from South Korea and other emerging markets suggests that explicit state support of family companies can be helpful in advancing a development agenda, it is by no means essential. In fact, these firms are often more resilient than their peers. Survival — and community — is in their DNA. Perhaps it’s not surprising that McKinsey now expects family-controlled businesses in emerging markets to “represent nearly 40 percent of the world’s large enterprises by 2025, up from roughly 15 percent in 2010.” As such, these firms are destined to be among the principal drivers of economic growth and wealth accumulation over the next decade, and likely beyond.”

Education and Social Mobility in South Korea

Education remained the single most important factor affecting social mobility in the 1990s. With the exception of the military, whose top echelons were educated at the Korea Military Academy, the postwar elites of South Korea shared one characteristic: they were graduates of the most prestigious universities. There was a well-defined hierarchy of such schools, starting with Seoul National University at the top and followed by Yonse University and Korea University (known as Koryo in Korean). Ehwa Woman's University was the top institution for women. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

A survey conducted in the mid-1970s by the Korea Development Institute, a research organization funded by the government but having considerable operational independence, revealed that 25 percent of a sample of entrepreneurs and 35 percent of a sample of higher civil servants had attended Seoul National University. The university's control of entry into the government and business elites is comparable to that exercised by the University of Tokyo in Japan. One major difference, however, is that for a Japanese student an extended period of study or residence abroad is not considered advisable because it interrupts one's career "track" within a single bureaucracy or corporation; many prominent South Koreans, however, obtain advanced degrees at universities in the United States and in Western Europe.

The social importance of education is one of the major continuities between traditional and contemporary Korea. People at the top require blue-ribbon educational backgrounds, not only because education gives them the cultural sophistication and technical expertise needed to manage large, complex organizations, but also because subordinates will not work diligently for an uneducated person — especially if subordinates are educated themselves. "Old school ties" are also increasingly necessary for advancement in a highly competitive society. At the bottom of the steep higher-education pyramid are low-prestige "diploma mills" whose graduates have little chance of breaking into elite circles. Yet graduation even from these institutions confers a sort of middle-class status.

Unfairness in South Korea

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post: “South Koreans have come to see fairness as an elusive ideal. While food prices and college tuitions rise, the bottom 20 percent of the population has seen its income plummet 35 percent in the past decade. As Seoul booms, far-flung provinces complain of neglect and struggle to attract businesses. Although the country’s growth was powered by tiger-strong “chaebols” — family-controlled firms such as Hyundai and Samsung — these corporations squeeze the middle- and small-size companies to whom they subcontract. In Korea, the strong people get everything,” said Kwak Seung-―jun, chairman of a council that advises the president. “We are used to competition....Right now, big companies are eating smaller companies.” [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post June 28, 2011]

“South Koreans have watched with dismay in recent months as a savings bank scandal has widened to embroil financial regulators and a former presidential aide. Prosecutors describe an elaborate scheme in which Busan Savings Bank tipped off high-profile customers about its impending suspension, allowing them to withdraw funds. The bank also bribed financial regulators to look the other way while it cooked its books. “I think this scandal, in a sense, has demolished the slogan of a fair society,” said Kang Won-taek, a political scientist at Seoul National University.

“Household debt in South Korea has climbed to 146 percent of income — worse than levels in the United States during the subprime mortgage crisis. Even as South Korea’s aggregate economic numbers show growth, too many people’s lives are getting more difficult, said Hong Yun-sik, the federal deputy minister for the national agenda. “There is definitely a gap between quantitative growth and qualitative growth,” Hong said. “We definitely need more growth in terms of quality.”

On the theme of unfairness expressed in the book In Park Min-gyu’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” Ed Park wrote in The New Yorker: There’s “plenty of comic relief, such as this sterling career advice for a new valet, turning the impulse to apologize on its head: “Now let’s suppose there’s been an accident. This is what you have to do, so listen and learn. First, take off your armband and cap. Next, run back to the office without looking back. If the supervisor’s there, knock him out. Open the second drawer of his desk and look for your employee record. Either tear that into shreds and swallow it or burn it. Then run straight home. Then start looking for another job. Is that clear?” [Source: Ed Park, The New Yorker, October 19, 2015]

“When you do something wrong, flee the scene: this would be bad business for Jin-man and Si-bong, inverting the bleak social order that they aim to exploit. Later in “At Least We Can Apologize,” Jin-man and Si-bong are recaptured by the sinister caretakers of the institution; the only way for Jin-man to escape is to sacrifice his friend. “I had committed a wrong against him, but I missed him very much,” Jin-man thinks. “That was all.” Apologies are only a partial salve for wrongdoing; they acknowledge, but do not reverse, the harm that’s been done. Jin-man, it turns out, has a conscience. This discovery recalls a line from the start of the novel, the attempt by the man with the sideburns to open Jin-man and Si-bong’s eyes: “ ‘Look at you! You guys are fine and you’re locked up in here!’ ” Maybe Jin-man and Si-bong were never crazy to begin with — no crazier, in any case, than the country awaiting them outside the gates. ?

Education Gap and Discrimination in South Korea

Despite impressive increases in university enrollments, the central importance of education credentials for social advancement has tended to widen the gap between the middle and lower classes. Income distribution is more unequal than in Japan or Taiwan, with pronounced disparities between college and secondary-school graduates. Many workers know that their comparatively low wages make it virtually impossible for them to give their children a college education, a heavy financial burden even for middle-class families. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

In the workplace, men and women with a middle-school or secondary-school education are often treated with open contempt by university graduate managers. The latter address them with rude or abrupt words whose impact is amplified by the statussensitive nature of the Korean language. The result has been bitter resentment and increasing labor militancy bordering on political opposition to the status quo.

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post: “Across university campuses this spring, South Koreans protested the cost of tuition — the third-highest among nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Compounding the tuition cost problems is a lack of scholarship options, forcing parents to rack up debt.” [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post June 28, 2011]

On the theme of unfairness expressed in modern literature, Ed Park wrote in The New Yorker: “Park Min-gyu’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” set in the late nineteen-eighties and translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim, tracks the doomed romance of its handsome narrator, a valet at a fancy shopping mall, and his co-worker, a shy, intelligent woman who is mocked for being homely — “the world’s ugliest woman.” Though she had the best grades at her vocational school, she’s never promoted; Park is blunt about the unfairness of a society wrapped up in surfaces, in which the unlovely are confined to a kind of permanent underclass, at least until they go under the knife. “Pavane” is a bildungsroman that veers into metafiction, bristling with footnotes and multiple endings. [Source: Ed Park, The New Yorker, October 19, 2015]

Aspiring for Fairness in South Korea

Thomas Piketty’s textbook on the economics of inequality was a bestseller in South Korea. In 2011, Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post: “With its rapid economic rise, South Korea has earned a reputation as a ruthless, competitive, go-go society. But now fairness has become chic. Students protest for it; government agencies promise to uphold it; newspaper editorials say the president has been too slow to deliver it. Experts say the fairness fixation reflects dismay at what rapid change has wrought: a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and residual corruption.” This and “middle-class economic concerns and a string of frauds and scandals have convinced South Koreans that theirs is anything but the “fair society” that he has touted. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post June 28, 2011]

Some South Koreans describe fairness as a prerequisite for reaching democratic maturity. But the value also contradicts the winner-take-all ethos that drove the country’s postwar boom, with the emergence of dominant conglomerates, an ultra-competitive education system and few social safety nets to help the non-elite. In a fair society, Lee said, “the winner does not take all.”

“The push for fairness has generated some unconventional test cases. Several months ago, Lotte Mart, a department store conglomerate, began selling buckets of fried chicken — so cheap that they sold out daily within hours. But small and medium-size chicken shacks couldn’t compete with those prices and protested the unfairness of it all. After five days, Lotte Mart surrendered, saying it would no longer offer cheap chicken, in deference to societal ideals”.

For some time, “South Koreans had shown a growing keenness for social equality. “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?,” a dense political philosophy book by Harvard professor Michael Sandel, sold several hundred thousand copies in South Korea. The government of President Lee Myung-bak “envision a process of growth by cooperation: The elites give more and gain social responsibility, the benefits trickle down, and South Korea becomes a more advanced nation. But all the while, Lee’s administration has been troubled by inveterate corruption, with illicit favors and bribery undermining the justice system, financial regulation and major business deals.

“Some government ministries have lately tried to chip away at corruption by limiting or banning pricey dinners or golf rounds with associates. In a radio address this month, Lee said that corruption remains “rampant” in many parts of society. Some experts suggest that such corruption is the legacy of South Korea’s quick political transformation, as the country rose to power as an authoritarian state in the 1960s and 1970s, then formally transitioned to democracy in 1987.

Conformity, Exclusion, Individualism and a Sense of Community in South Korea

Conformity is a strong force in Korea. Going against the grain is not encouraged and being labeled as different can be a crushing insult. This view is summed up by the common expressions: "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down" which is used in both Korea and Japan. You see few punk rockers in Korea and men with earrings and long hair. It can be argued that the trend to get plastic surgery to look like favorite K-pop stars is an expression of conforming to a K-Pop ideal.

One of the worst fears of a Korean individual is to be excluded from a group. Office workers feel obligated to do things socially with their coworkers and mothers go through great lengths to be accepted by other mothers in their neighborhood.

But on the other hand, Koreans can be very individualistic and have certain qualities that set them apart for other Asians. Michael Breem, the author a book on Koreans, wrote, “They ascribe to collective values and yet are probably the most individualistic of all east Asians.” Donald Gregg, chairman of the Korea Society told the New York Times, “Koreans could care less about consensus. In Korea, if something isn’t working, they move it, they break it, whatever. The Japanese go along in the hope that tweaking it will make it change.”

On the issue of a sense of community, the OECD says: “Humans are social creatures. The frequency of our contact with others and the quality of our personal relationships are thus crucial determinants of our well-being. A strong social network, or community, can provide emotional support during both good and bad times as well as provide access to jobs, services and other material opportunities. In Korea, 78 percent of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in a time of need, the lowest rate in the OECD, where the average is 89 percent. [Source: OECD Better Life Index]

“A weak social network can result in limited economic opportunities, a lack of contact with others, and eventually, feelings of isolation. Socially isolated individuals face difficulties integrating into society as a contributing member and fulfilling personal aspirations.
Indicators: Quality of support network 78.4 percent, rank:last, 40 out of 40
Gender Inequality: 1.11 men to women; Rank: second last, 39 out of 40
Social Inequality: 1.35 rich to poor; Rank: 17 out of 19.

Impact of Military Service of South Korean Males and Society

About 300,000 South Korean men are conscripted each year into the military or riot police in South Korea. Under law, all able Korean males who have completed high school are subject too conscription when they are 18. Those who refuse to fulfill their obligations face a prison sentence of three years, harsh treatment while in prison and tough parole terms when they get out. Many companies refuse to hire someone who has not served.

James Griffiths of CNN wrote: “Beyond objections to violence, South Korean men have another very valid reason for seeking to avoid military service: the army is notorious for the hazing and abuse many recruits go through. In 2014, then President Park Geun-hye urged action after photos emerged of the bruised and bloody body of a 20-year-old private, who was beaten and abused every day for a month before he eventually died. [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, June 29, 2018]

“The tough experiences of many men in the military have been at the core of an anti-feminist backlash to the #MeToo movement in South Korea by men's rights groups, even as the country has made some progress in tackling issues of sexual harassment and assault. James Turnbull, a Busan-based expert on Korean feminism and popular culture, said this reaction is "overwhelmingly driven by (the) perceived unfairness" that men perform military service while women do not. But he said that their time in the army is largely responsible for the negative attitudes and behavior the #MeToo movement is seeking to stamp out.

“"It's difficult to overemphasize the role of the military as a socialization agent" for young men, Turnbull said, many of whom join the military "after their first year of university, barely out of high school" and have little interaction with women during that time except female K-Pop groups who perform at bases. "This vision of women and male-female relations that the combination engenders — that men's role is to do important work for the nation, while women's is to remain on the sidelines offering their support, especially through their youthful looks and sexual availability — is pervasive in Korean daily life."

Korean Nationalism and Xenophobia

South Korean can be very nationalistic. Driving a foreign-made car is viewed by many as a treasonous act. Theaters that showed foreign films used to have snakes thrown in them. Any perceived slight or injustice from Japan, the U.S. or elsewhere is greeted with loud cries of foul.

Koreans sometimes seem to have huge chips on their shoulders. This might have something to do with a strong desire for respect for having achieved so much while still being be compared to and dominated by its larger more powerful neighbors, China and Japan. Many Koreans feel that Korean the saying “when the whale sneezes, the shrimp get killed” sums up their fate in international relations. This is arguably less true now than it was in the past.

South Korea – a deeply hierarchical, Confucian society where etiquette has great significance – is particularly sensitive to any possible slight to its national pride. Nationalism is drilled in by the education system and reenforced by family and the media.

Koreans can be very sensitive and defensive about matters concerning Korea or Korean customs. The American actress Meg Ryan received US$200,000 to do a commercial shown in South Korea for a brand of shampoo called Sexy-Mild. When Ryan joked about doing the commercial and the name on the David Lettermen Show she was bitterly attacked for her remarks in South Korea and had the contract revoked. Ryan apologized for her remark, saying through a spokesman, "There was no harm intended towards Sexy-Mild, its manufacturer, or the Korean people." Microsoft was forced to apologize for "depicting the Korean are primitively" in the game "Age of Empires."

Changes and Modernization in Korean Society.

In South Korea, great grandparents had to work hard to survive. Grandparents worked hard to bring a better life for the children. Well-educated parents enjoyed the fruits of their parents’ hard work and pushed South Korea into developed country status, with lots of freedoms and access to cell phones and broad ban Internet. Young people today are Internet-savvy but often struggle to find good jobs and advance in society like their parents and grandparents.

At the end of World War II, Korea's traditional social fabric, based on rural communities and stable social hierarchies, was tattered but not entirely destroyed. In South Korea, the traditional social system survived, although drastically altered by urbanization and economic development. In North Korea, an occupation by Soviet troops, the communist revolution, and the rule of Kim Il Sung, transformed the society. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

During the three decades after Park's 1961 coup d'état, the goal of the military elite was to create a harmonious, disciplined society that is both technically advanced and economically efficient. Economic modernization, however, has brought social changes — especially in education and urbanization- -that have had a corrosive effect on the military's authoritarian view of society and have promoted the emergence of a more contentious, pluralistic society than many in the military have found desirable.

Things have changed rapidly in South Korea in the last few decades. Ed Park wrote in The New Yorker: “Two decades ago, when I spent a year in Seoul, the city my parents came from, after I graduated from college, I couldn’t have fathomed that South Korea would become an epicenter of state-of-the-art anything; there was hardly any evidence that a new, high-tech, high-speed civilization was on the way. [Source: Ed Park, The New Yorker, October 19, 2015]

“Things changed after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. As Euny Hong detailed last year, in her book “The Birth of Korean Cool,” the South Korean government, reeling from the recession, decided to invest in pop culture as a prime export, resulting in the wildly popular boy bands and girl bands and soap operas that went on to make up hallyu, the wave of Korean culture that has swept over Asia, and, increasingly, the rest of the world. These days, South Korea is famous for being among the most wired countries in the world, with whip-fast Internet speeds and a smartphone in every hand. Thousands fill stadiums to watch video-game tournaments, and plastic surgery seems as common as hair dye. It sounds like science fiction.

“Such breakneck change can’t help but come at a price. The titular mother in [the book]“Please Look After Mom,” for instance, travels from the countryside to Seoul to visit her grown children, only to get lost in the subway. The novel captures the unsettling dislocation of the country’s rapid rural-to-urban transformation, and the transition from an elder-venerating Confucian hierarchy to a youth-focussed culture obsessed with physical beauty. This degree of change has left a deadly legacy: as Kim Young-ha noted in a Times Op-Ed last year, South Korea’s suicide rate has been the highest in the industrialized world for eight years running.”

Introduction of Weekends to South Korea

Su Hyun Lee wrote in the New York Times: “The sudden embrace of” leisure time “reflects greater exposure to Western customs and cuisines as more South Koreans travel, work and study abroad. But it also is related to a watershed development at home: the mandatory weekend. For decades South Korean governments have stressed hard work and making money, which has helped to turn the country’s economy into one of the most robust in the world. But starting in 2004, the government began shortening the official workweek from six days to five. Now, all enterprises with 50 or more employees are required to provide two days off. By 2011, all companies must do so. [Source: Su Hyun Lee, New York Times, November 2, 2007]

“The discovery of the weekend has meant an explosion in new activities. Inns have opened up all over the country to accommodate overnight excursions. The new opportunity for short trips to neighboring countries has helped catapult South Koreans to the top ranks of tourists in the region. “The unaccustomed free time has also meant that South Koreans can start indulging themselves like the young New Yorkers they had been watching in syndicated television sitcoms like “Sex and the City,” whose characters always seemed to be whiling away enjoyable hours over brunch. Before the five-day workweek started, we were always tired after drinking until late, because nighttime was the only time to socialize,” said Suh Yang-ho, a 29-year-old who was having brunch with a colleague one recent Saturday at Stove.

“Traditionally, married Korean women have stayed home with their families; they did not go out with friends on weekends. Now, married as well as single women avoid cooking when they can and are leading the move toward eating out. They regularly get together with friends over brunch. Daughters are introducing their mothers to this laid-back way of passing a weekend morning. Wives are trying to get their husbands to appreciate the leisurely lifestyle it represents.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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