Because the South Korean-produced Netflix drama Squid Recreation achieved widespread recognition all through the world, there was rising curiosity within the actuality of inequality, social injustice, and harsh competitors in modern South Korean society. The drama reveals South Korea as a Janus-faced society the place capitalism’s sights and perils, individuals’s needs and fears, in addition to the liberty and violence of competitors, have been taken to the acute. And this show of the nation’s contradictions isn’t far faraway from the reality.
As an illustration, South Korea has the world’s highest college enrolment charge, the tenth biggest gross home product (GDP) on the planet, the best web penetration charge, and the very best e-government within the OECD. On the identical time, lengthy working hours, intense competitors, excessive inequality, excessive charges of poverty and non-regular employees, and a weak social security web all contribute to many individuals’s every day hardships.
How did the nation arrive at this level? To grasp its trajectory, one wants to return to the origins of South Korea’s financial mannequin within the Seventies. Again then, South Korea garnered international consideration as an exemplary case of a ‘late late moderniser’ following the German or Japanese mannequin of catching-up to the West, and as one of many ‘4 Asian Tigers’ alongside Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. This nation is without doubt one of the uncommon circumstances that belonged to the low-income nations within the Sixties however joined the upper-income teams within the 2010s. Right here, not solely a modicum of higher class, however a large center class shared within the fruits of progress.
South Korea’s authoritarian developmentalist regime
South Korea’s financial success was primarily based on a developmentalist regime that prioritised financial progress over different values resembling social solidarity, primary rights, and the safety of the eco-system. Through the dictatorship that lasted till 1987, an alliance of politics and enterprise consolidated a developmentalist coverage paradigm and institutional constructions.
This authoritarian state and its company allies carved out lots of the traits of this regime, together with the absolutisation of personal property, the prioritisation of company earnings, the dominance of personal welfare, and the glorification of the supposed trickle-down impact. On the identical time, rights to organise and political organisation of the employees have been severely restricted throughout South Korea’s authoritarian rule. Till its finish within the Eighties, the speed of public welfare expenditure to GDP was lower than 2 per cent, and the fundamental social insurance coverage methods weren’t totally launched till the late Nineties.
Following modifications within the international financial atmosphere starting within the mid-Nineties, situations in employment, work, and revenue in South Korea deteriorated significantly.
Regardless of these coercive and unique traits of the developmentalist regime, nonetheless, it might fulfill each progress and equality to a major extent till the mid-Nineties. Business continued to broaden; financial progress was accompanied by will increase in employment; poverty charges decreased; and inequality stayed low not less than from the early Eighties to the mid-Nineties.
Below political situations the place autonomous affiliation and social solidarity weren’t allowed, people struggled to develop their wealth and status by buying land and a house, acquiring good jobs, and attending faculty. Nonetheless, such particular person efforts to attain success and happiness contributed to the institution of a social order that resembles the competitors for survival in ‘Squid Recreation’, one which causes fixed ache and nervousness.
The rise of inequality
Following modifications within the international financial atmosphere starting within the mid-Nineties, situations in employment, work, and revenue in South Korea deteriorated significantly. Most notably, the 1997 Asian monetary disaster and subsequent financial structural modifications within the nation turned a decisive turning level.
The variety of non-regular employees – those that don’t profit from customary statutory provisions by way of employment safety – soared from the 2000s, such that in 2021 non-regular employees account for 38.4 per cent of wage employees, and 47.4 per cent amongst feminine employees based on Statistics Korea. Extra lately, the variety of so-called ‘dependent self-employment’ employees, resembling particular employment employees, platform employees, and freelancers, is growing quickly, whereas institutional modifications to guard them have been sluggish.
Because of this, inequality and poverty have risen considerably because the mid-2000s. South Korea’s Gini coefficient of disposable revenue was 0.345 in 2018, one of many highest degree within the OECD, whereas its relative poverty charge stood at 16.7 per cent, the third highest within the OECD. Solely the US and Israel rank worse than South Korea. Within the face of such excessive inequality, the nation’s suicide charge has been both first to second within the OECD for greater than a decade. Provided that South Korea has a comparatively low crime charge, it seems like aggression within the nation is just not directed at others, however at oneself.
The battle of organised labour
Regardless of such a worrisome scenario, most employees and the poor have few organisational and institutional assets. Not solely is the unionisation charge in South Korea at the moment lower than 13 per cent, however because the proportion of self-employed is over 20 per cent, union membership accounts for under round 5 per cent amongst all economically energetic individuals.
Furthermore, South Korean labour unions have problem profitable the assist and belief of the working class, which at the moment accounts for about 45 per cent of the South Korean grownup inhabitants. For instance, labour unions lately held a large-scale protest motion in downtown Seoul, however they weren’t profitable in formulating concrete calls for, attracting media consideration, or highlighting the labour concern within the political competitors forward of the subsequent presidential election in March 2022.
At the moment’s South Korean society doesn’t have a easy cleavage wherein a small predatory minority dominates the disadvantaged majority.
Moreover, the vast majority of South Korean employees usually are not protected by public security nets. Public welfare continues to be underdeveloped such that, in 2018, public social spending as a share of GDP was 11.1 per cent, which solely quantities to 55.5 per cent of the OECD common. In the identical yr, welfare spending accounted for 31.6 per cent of the entire authorities spending, the second lowest degree within the OECD behind Mexico.
In these circumstances, quite a few survey outcomes point out that a big a part of South Koreans regard inequality as essentially the most important social downside. Consequently, they’re calling for a extra formidable response from the federal government. The variations in coverage attitudes and political inclinations by revenue, housing, and property have additionally turn into extra stark than previously. Why, then, are the societal forces attempting to shake South Korea’s developmentalist system and alter the principles of the sport not getting stronger?
South Korean capitalism is just not exhausted – but
Initially, the premise for consenting to South Korean capitalism has not but been exhausted. The highest 30 per cent personal a major share of wealth, and the nervousness of the center class is much less extreme than the distress of the decrease courses. Second, many insiders of the segmented labour market are organised, whereas outsiders are unorganised. Which means that social teams that actually want change lack the assets for collective motion and politicisation. Lastly, the 2 main political events dominating South Korean politics below the presidential system and the majoritarian electoral system are growing their means to handle the labour and inequality points with out taking substantial motion.
In different phrases, immediately’s South Korean society doesn’t have a easy cleavage wherein a small predatory minority dominates the disadvantaged majority. As an alternative, it’s divided into those that get pleasure from wealth and stability throughout the present system, those that nonetheless don’t hand over hope for survival and success amidst nervousness, and people who are hopeless.
Due to this fact, any technique for forming a majority advocating change will rely on the potential of linking the empowerment of most deprived teams throughout the system, on the one hand, and the transformative potential of the anxious center class, on the opposite. Is that this, nonetheless, an issue distinctive to South Korea? The worldwide recognition of the Squid Recreation definitely suggests the other.