No Country for Old Men (or Women): #Shigak no. 15

By | November 10, 2014 | No Comments

Apartment buildings piercing the skyline in Suwon (a suburb of Seoul). | Image: Colinwood0/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Apartment buildings pierce the skyline in Suwon (a major suburb of Seoul). | Image: Colinwood0/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

“Shigak” (시각), or “perspective,” is a multilingual data collection effort that uses Twitter to curate sources dealing in key political, social, and economic issues on South Korea. Each bimonthly issue takes only the most important tweets posted by Sino-NK analysts under the hashtag #시각 and augments them with essential annotations and a small dose of concentrated analysis.

Shigak is edited by Steven Denney and Christopher Green. Back issues can be found on the dedicated page.

No Country for Old Men (or Women): #Shigak no. 15

by Sino-NK

This edition of Shigak focuses on three issues that really matter to ordinary voters: jobs, housing, and the economy. Armed with national statistics and some insightful analysis, we look at the job market for retirees, then watch on with a wry smile as Ahn Cheol-soo hunts for a message that resonates, before finally pondering how high it is possible for lease-on-deposit house prices in Seoul to go. Elsewhere, we cover the fate of the captain of the Sewol and his crew, the latest in what is by far the no.1 news story-cum-social controversy in South Korea this calendar year, and reveal news of existential angst in the business community, which fears nothing so much as being squeezed out by lower production costs in the west coupled to the chill wind of Abenomics-infused technological excellence from the east.

The following tweets were posted between October 16 and October 31.

Citing numbers from Statistics Korea, the Chosun Ilbo reports that “The number of Koreans working on a contract basis rather than a full job stood at 6.08 million as of August, up 2.2 percent or 131,000 on-year.” This is the highest figure since records began in August 2003. Chosun also notes, “The number of non-regular workers reached 5.99 million in 2001 but declined slightly to 5.91 million in 2012 and began rising again last year.” The reason for the rise, it asserts, is “a rise in the number of part-time staff working less than 36 hours a week….” Among these part-time workers, “those over 60 increased the most (11.1 percent).”

South Korea’s low labor productivity is regularly noted in public discourse, but as The Korean points out, much of what is printed in the international, particularly English-language, media about labor productivity (and the labor market more generally) is inaccurate or misleading. Partly this is because it does not take into account the number of elderly people working part time after they “retire” from previous jobs. The primary reason why this occurs is due to underdeveloped welfare policies and limited take-up of private pensions— as a result, the elderly do not have enough money to actually retire in the proper sense of the word, causing them to work in relatively unproductive activities to sustain themselves.

In an comment representative of South Korea’s love affair with “splendid development,” Korean business experts say that “policies need to go back to the time of ‘catch up.’” A cursory understanding of South Korea’s political and economic conditions during the time of “catch up” is enough to show that this is all but impossible in practical terms. However, as it is used nowadays, “catch up” is seen more as a mindset than anything else. The Hankyoreh article is an article-cum review of a seminar hosted by the Korean Economic Association, the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (KIET), and the Korea Economic Research Institute (KERI) entitled “China’s Catch-up and the Tasks Facing South Korean Manufacturing.”

The focus of the seminar centered on concerns over South Korea’s relative decrease in manufacturing competitiveness—primarily a consequence of China’s industrial development. The mood of the seminar is perhaps best summarized in this quote by KIET senior research fellow Suh Dong-hyuk: “In five years, China is only going to be an even bigger threat in most of [South Korea’s] mainstay industries…. I expect us to be battling China in most of our main industries besides cars, semiconductors, and general machinery.” Given the cost advantages of moving factories to China (for South Korean businesspeople), general technological advances in Chinese manufacturing, and competition from Japan armed with a weaker Yen, it is fair to wonder the extent to which economic nationalism is destined to give way to the allure of profit (often mutually exclusive forces).

After taking responsibility for two election losses, former NPAD co-leader Ahn Cheol-soo withdrew from the media spotlight. However, in recent days he has emerged from political exile. In a press conference, Ahn called himself a “founder of New Politics.” However, he was vague about his future role in the NPAD. Via his Twitter account, Ahn commented that “New Politics is not going to limit itself only to political reforms,” implying that his previous “New Politics” agenda was too abstract and idealistic. He is now promising to focus on concrete issues such as the economy and education.

In politics, one simply cannot go wrong by promising greater economic prosperity for all. In 2007, President Lee Myung-bak (who won a landslide victory) promised the South Korean middle class that he would be their “Economy President” [경제 대통령]. Incumbent President Park Geun-hye ran on a campaign promise of “Economic Democratization” [경제 민주화], in addition to tapping into the legacy of her father Park Chung-hee; to many this is one of economic growth and development (not oppressive anti-democratic governance). Ahn is a pioneering IT entrepreneur; as such, he is in a great position to brand himself with a message about the economy.

State prosecutors in the southerly city of Gwangju declared that they would seek the death penalty for the captain of the Sewol, a passenger ferry that sank off the South Korean coast in April with the loss of 300 lives. The captain, Lee Jun-seok, was among the first to depart the stricken vessel, and was caught on camera seemingly half-dressed as he left. President Park Geun-hye compromised her neutrality early on by declaring Lee’s actions “tantamount to murder,” though there is no evidence that this influenced the prosecution’s decision. A total of four members of the Sewol crew face homicide charges.

Despite the decision to pursue the death sentence, South Korea is a de facto abolitionist state where no death sentences have been carried out since 1997, meaning that a death sentence verdict would in any case be largely symbolic. Death sentences are not particularly rare in themselves, however: serial killer Kang Ho-sun was sentenced to death in 2010, for example.

The parent company of the Sewol, Cheonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd has been accused of gross negligence in the case. Yu Dae-gyun, the son of Yu Byeong-eon (유병언, alternative Romanization Yoo Byung-eun), the deceased owner of Cheonghaejin, was imprisoned for three years on November 5, 2014 for embezzlement of Cheonghaejin funds worth 7.39 billion KRW (6.9 million USD); others including Yu’s younger brother received lesser sentences. Such acts of embezzlement to fund the bizarre activities of the elder Yu are thought to have led to extremely poor safety conditions on the Sewol and other vessels formerly operated by the company.

The case has reverberated around South Korean society for months, as wrangling persisted over legislation intended to deal with the side effects of the sinking, one of the worst peacetime disasters in South Korean history. Although the National Assembly finally passed three separate bills pertaining to facets of the Sewol incident on November 7, this is unlikely to bring the matter to a close.

Steven Denney writes at The Diplomat that young South Koreans are increasingly more tolerant of homosexuality. Data from the World Values Survey (WVS) shows the trend and generational divide clearly. South Korea’s Millennials are more socially progressive than their parents and grandparents. The older generations are, at least on the measure of tolerance towards homosexuality, distinctly more conservative.

Given presidential hopeful Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s public support for “the rights of homosexuals,” this broader social trend ought to be interpreted as a positive “progressive” development for a society that has long struggled to define a truly progressive agenda. Kim Young-hwan’s “outing” of pro-North Korea lawmakers (still in the National Assembly) is one example of the South Korean Left’s difficulty in finding a genuine identity. That South Korea’s youth could be seen as taking a social progressive “left turn” is also an encouraging corrective for a cohort of the population that is markedly conservative on broader security, and even some political, issues.

According to data obtained by lawmaker Lee No-geun of the Land Infrastructure and Transport Committee of the National Assembly, the most expensive “jeonse” [전세: lease on deposit] paid in South Korea in the 12 months to October 2014 was 2.3 billion KRW (2.1 million USD) in early April for a 244.66㎡ apartment in the infamously expensive Tower Palace complex in Dogok-dong, Seoul. According to Yonhap, this price is more than seven times the average Seoul jeonse of 330 million KRW (302,500 USD), and between 51 and 57 percent of the purchase price of the apartment itself.

Whilst the Tower Palace price is exceptional, it is not a complete outlier. Citywide, the lease on deposit-to-apartment price ratio in Seoul reached a record 64.6 percent at the end of September. This has long concerned both the national and Seoul metropolitan governments, representing as it does the increasing unaffordability of much of Seoul for many families and young couples. Tower Palace may be a symbol of affluence for Seoulites, but it is also a symbol of income inequality, a serious election issue in urban constituencies nationwide.

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