As an English conversation teacher, I spent most of my time in Korea discussing everything from K-pop to politics to history to relationships with Koreans young and old. In that time I have learned about many supremely interesting aspects of Korean culture and why it is the way it is. There are many things that I like about Korea—public transportation, galbi restaurants, and open-air tippling are three which leap to mind. Reflecting on what I learned, though, the most remarkable thing about Korea is a story my history teacher student told me about the foreign exchange crisis (Koreans call it the IMF crisis) of 1997. Hardship often reveals the true nature of a person; maybe the same holds true for nations.
In 1997 Korea was a country on the rise. The eleventh largest economy in the world and with a per-capita GDP above $10,000 for the first time, the Land of the Morning Calm was indistinguishable from the war-torn wasteland of forty years before. Seoul was emerging as one of the business hubs of East Asia and, with an unemployment rate of only two percent, any Korean that wanted a job could get one. Referred to by former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan as a “symbol of Asia’s remarkable growth,” Korea seemingly had nowhere to go but up.
All Koreans over the age of 20 remember what happened next: thanks to a combination of domestic and international economic instability, Korea was swept up in the Asian financial crisis. Thousands of businesses went bankrupt or initiated enormous layoffs, in some cases thousands per day. Institutional companies like Daewoo were bankrupted or sold to foreign corporations. Businessmen, ashamed to tell their families they had been laid off, dressed for work and spent their days wandering around parks.
Up to this point the tale is familiar; indeed, many in the past few years have experienced
something not dissimilar to what Koreans underwent in the late 1990s. But what happens next is simply remarkable. As we have witnessed in Greece, the United States, Spain, and countless other places, economic crises tend to lead to civil unrest and increased anger towards the establishment. Not in Korea. Instead of turning on their government and major companies, Koreans banded together. Unions and corporations put aside differences and agreed on new labor laws to aid the climb out of bankruptcy. But the most amazing event was the gold drive, where Koreans lined up to donate their possessions to help the Korean government pay down its debt. Wedding rings, expensive jewelry, family heirlooms…
all were sacrificed by the Korean people to help pay down their sovereign debt.
Thanks to the efforts and cooperation of its people, Korea was able to pay off its IMF debt three years ahead of schedule and continue their rapid ascent up the economic ladder. It’s the same attitude (known in Korea as bali-bali—quickly, quickly) that allowed one of the poorest countries in the world in 1950 to become the technological and industrial powerhouse of the present day. That Korea is where it is now is a tribute to the capacity of its people for hard work and perseverance against tremendous odds.
Is Korea perfect? Of course not. When my students and I weren’t talking about K-Pop, Korean baseball, or politics, we were talking about the dangerously high stress level and absurdly long hours of Korean education and work cultures. Suicide rates are the highest in the world. Korea ranks thirty-first of thirty-two OECD countries in happiness. There are a bevy of serious problems caused by the bali-bali mindset. But when you have a full stomach and a roof over your head, social problems become a lot less daunting. Given their recent history, I wouldn’t be surprised if we were talking about Korea as the happiest country in the world. I know I won’t be betting against them.
After working in Washington, D.C., for two years, Andrew Orlebeke (’10) is in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, studying public policy. In addition to public service, he has a passion for traveling and an abiding love of sports.