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Jen​ée Tibshraeny's observations of the cost South Korea has paid for its rise to the top

Jen​ée Tibshraeny's observations of the cost South Korea has paid for its rise to the top

By Jenée Tibshraeny

“I needed a break, so I started my own business. I didn’t want to keep working so hard.”

Yes, you heard right.

It is perhaps only in South Korea that work life is so gruelling, that starting your own business is the easier option.

Well at least it was for John Han – the owner of Big John’s Place bed and breakfast in Seoul.

Having spent 10 years working 12-hour days for the Marriott Hotel chain and a luxury goods company, Richemont Korea, he decided being his own boss was the only way to get his life back.

So in 2014 he opened a hostel in a quiet nook of the trendy suburb of Gangnam that can accommodate for up to 16 people.

Spending a weekend at Big John’s Place, I noticed John, 41, is always smiling. He walks his dog in the afternoons, is comfortable doing a workout in an old pair of track pants on the deck of his property, and delights in cracking open a beer and some soju over a meal with his guests – all the same running a successful business with a 5 star Trip Adviser rating.

While John is the kind of guy you’d expect to run the Hahei Campground, he’s an anomaly in South Korea.

Others often have no choice but to be caught up in the rat race that has seen South Korea propelled from being one of the poorest countries in the world, in the wake of the Korean War in the early 1950s, to being the 13th wealthiest today.


While still much lower than China’s, its total GDP growth has soared. Its GDP per capita has also crept up to a similar level as in New Zealand.

The roads, buildings, bridges and train system are jaw-dropping. The streets in the cities come alive at night, as people spend – food, drinks, clothing, technology, you name it. The likes of the port in Busan – the fifth largest cargo port in the world, and the Lotte World Tower – the fifth tallest building in the world, are impressive sights.

Perhaps the most astounding part of the country I saw was Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ). This 133km² area to the west of Seoul, was in 2003 designated as an “international” city with hefty tax breaks and subsidies aimed at attracting foreign investment.

While the area encompasses Incheon International Airport/Ports, it has attracted 13 international organisations and 75 multinational companies, including Samsung BioLogics, Celltrion, Boeing, BMW and GM.

The public and private sectors in South Korea are also forking out around US$10 billion to host the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next year.

Most of the venues, including a new ski centre, speed-skating oval, figure skating arena and sliding track for the bobsled and luge, are nearing completion. Progress is also being made on two villages being built.

A new high-speed rail line is expected to be completed by the middle of the year, cutting the two-and-a-half hour drive from Seoul to only 70 minutes.

Human expense

All this development has come at a cost – a human cost.

The older generation put in the hard yards, often suffering human rights abuses, to boost the country under the leadership of the dictator Park Chung-hee from 1961 until 1979. Human capital and US investment transformed the economy.

Yet the struggle of the older generation weighs heavy on the younger generation. The pressure from their parents to succeed is immense.

One 29-year-old man I spoke to complained about the fact he’d had a text book life; a privileged upbringing, studied in California, etc, yet he was still battling better qualified candidates for jobs he believed were underpaid. He is now considering going back to university to get a law degree.

Another man of a similar age told me his mother pressured him to get plastic surgery around his eyes, to improve his physical appearance, in the hope this would enable him to be more successful. Like most South Koreans I encountered, his appearance was already immaculate.  

The pressure people are under is wearing them down.

Furthermore, South Korea has the second highest suicide rate in the world. Alcoholism – an escape from the regimentation and stresses of life – is also a prevalent problem.

While John has found a good equilibrium in Seoul, a number of young South Koreans are desperate to escape. Even one of our smiling tour guides opened up to me about her dream to move to a Scandinavian country.   

This Al Jazeera documentary, ‘Fleeing South Korea’, provides a fascinating insight into young South Koreans’ disenchantment with their country, and their willingness to do jobs they’re overqualified for overseas, just to leave.

According to Statistics New Zealand, the number of student visa arrivals to New Zealand from South Korea increased from 462 in the year to February 2015, to 601 in 2016 and 748 in 2017.

The number of work visa arrivals from South Korea increased from 645 in 2015, to 747 in 2016 and 1,089 in 2017.

Ageing population

South Korea’s ‘brain drain’ is only exacerbating its economic struggle with its ageing population.

Furthermore, work pressures and the cost of education are preventing young South Koreans from having babies. It has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates, at 1.24 births per woman of child bearing age:

The South Korean Government last year announced it would expand state subsidies for couples seeking infertility treatment, and raise paternity leave allowances for families with a second child.

It aims to increase the birth rate to 1.5 by 2020, which means at least 20,000 more babies must be born this year.


This dynamic begs the questions; how will South Korea sustain its growth? Its annual GDP growth has fallen from around 8% in the 70s and 80s, to 6% in the 90s and 2.4% today. 

What will happen to Pyeongchang after the Olympics?

Will the tax breaks to attract foreign investment – and people – be enough? This is how the promotional material for the Incheon Free Economic Zone sees it helping the economy:

Yet from the day I spent in the futuristic Incheon Free Economic Zone, it seemed the impressive buildings and infrastructure were there, but the people were lacking. The four lane roads were desolate and strategically allocated ‘green spaces’ empty. It was like I was in a life-size property showroom.

Will Chinese and US’s military investment in South Korea continue to translate into economic investment? Will South Korea fare well against its Asian competitors, Singapore and Hong Kong, for investment?

My hope – as an outsider who has only seen a brief snapshot of the country – is that it can settle into a sustainable level of growth, which is sustainable for its people.

It would be a shame for young South Koreans to be so disillusioned by work, that they lose sight of everything they have to be proud of. 

Jenée Tibshraeny was sponsored to attend the World Journalists Conference in Seoul by the Journalists Association of Korea.

*This article was first published in our email for paying subscribers early on Thursday morning. See here for more details and how to subscribe.

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In the experience of a friend of mine who lives in Seoul, young women coming out of university who can afford to typically enter a 6-9 regimen of cosmetic surgery and the like to prepare them for life. This is done to ensure they can increase their chances of 1) landing a good job, and 2) landing a desirable husband (rich). She says the pressure on young women there is immense, and there are also many mental health issues arising out of this.

At some point, do we need to consider what short term obsession with a few more dollars is doing to others in our society? Like our own Gary Glitter rock-star economy that is doing some terrible things to the kids...

On a more positive note, South Korea does provide an interesting example of public-private fostering of a move from base level commodities and consumption economics into a successful value-adding economy with some strong industries.


It's brutal but Kiwis are trying to follow the Japanese model of economic failure and social collapse.


I thought we were following the Icelandic model of buying our houses off each other until we're all rich.


We're trying to combine the two. Although the crash from the property bubble in Japan is still evident.


A cut throat society that should warn us about governments that try plannned economies


Sounds like one of a number of countries that have grown GDP per capita but failed a increasing productivity (poor GDP per hour worked.) Keeps unemployment down but doesn't improve quality of life. On paper you might say France and the UK have similar levels of GDP per capita however France achieves that using almost a third less man hours. The average French worker could knock off after lunch on a Thursday.