Tag Archive | "social issues"

Table for One?: How Dining Culture Is Changing in South Korea

By Gwanghyun Pyun

One of things you might observe when you visit South Korea is that there are very few people who dine alone. In Korean dining culture, all family members have breakfast and dinner together at their house. It is also common for children to have lunch with their classmates at school and workers to have lunch with their coworkers. Furthermore, many Korean companies regularly hold ‘company dinners,’ which every worker is encouraged to attend to help develop company unity. Eating together is so common in Korea that those who dine alone can be seen as having few friends or lacking social skills.

However, the number of Korean people who dine alone at home and work is increasing. Although Korea has a strong dining-together culture, more people are starting to accept the idea of dining alone. Korean people call this dining alone behavior ‘honbap’ (“hon” means alone and “bap” means meal in Korean). Korean media commonly attribute the increase in the ‘honbap’ trend to changes in the Korean society – including the fact that society is becoming more competitive as well as the growth of individualism and an increasing number of single-person households.

At first, the ‘honbap’ trend became popular among university students who were under high levels of stress due to competition in the job market. It is difficult for university students to plan meals with friends. They are often too busy making themselves more marketable by preparing for job tests, improving their language skills and engaging in the community service activities that are major requirements to get a job. Many students started to consider dining together a waste of time and money and realized that dining alone is more convenient.

Korean office workers face similar challenges. Even after getting a job, they face fierce competition for promotion or survival in the work place. Some of them want to save lunch time by eating alone and then use lunch time for building their professional development such as learning English, studying skills related to their professional area and taking certification courses. Professional development has become so important that some language institutes have offered lunch time classes that serve a light lunch. Thanks to this trend, many restaurants began catering to a growing market of solo-diners. Most restaurants in Korea in the past had menus and tables set up for group customers, to the point where people could only order food in portions for two or more people. But now many restaurants have rearranged table formations as well as menu in order to accommodate solo diners.

The ‘honbap’ trend has also become popular in people’s homes due to the increasing number of single-person households. According to Statistics Korea, single-person households accounted for about 15.5 percent of the total population in 2000, but increased to 27.1 percent in 2015. Among single-person households, 91.8 percent of them tend to dine alone. This change has affected all ages, mainly due to the delayed marriage age and increasing divorce rate. Since the number of single-person households has increased, it has become less common to see all family members dine together every day like they used to.

The cultural transition from collectivism to individualism in Korean society has also contributed to this trend. According to Professor Kwak Geum-ju at Seoul National University, people feel so tired of meeting others that they prefer to spend more time alone. This is because when they have meals together, they must take others’ food preference, daily schedule and even financial situation into consideration. In addition to their busy lives, Korean people have also become tired of Korea’s collectivist culture, resulting in more people deciding to dine alone.

Now, not only do Korean people dine alone, but also they drink, watch movies, and sing karaoke alone. Professor Jeong Do-un at Seoul National University explained that the dining alone phenomenon means that Korean society is gradually shifting away from a group-based society. Many Koreans are realizing that they do not need to spend their time and money to blindly maintain groups, and instead can focus on their individual lives if they choose to.

The ’honbap’ trend also has some downsides. For example, some people choose to eat alone out of convenience. Others, however, are compelled to eat alone due to their small social network or even insufficient finances. For them, ‘honbap’ means that they do not have a person to communicate with or cannot afford social activity. In addition, there is  research that shows people who dine alone tend to have poor health due to irregular meals and social phobia. The fact that the trend is based to a certain extent on the increasing number of single-person households and on competitiveness in society         hints at the some of the negative aspects of this trend.

Compared to many Western cultures, eating alone is a concept that is rather foreign to many Koreans. Nevertheless, ‘honbap’ behavior is a rapidly growing trend that is changing dining culture in Korea. According to a survey by Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, 56.6% of the respondents said they have dined out alone. And people who belong to single-person households, which make up 27.1% of total households, must eat alone at home every day. Many have come to an understanding that dining alone is not a strange behavior but part of a reasonable lifestyle for those who choose it for their own convenience. But Korean people should keep in mind that they also need to maintain balance between convenience and social life.

Gwanghyun Pyun is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Sogang University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Guian Bolisay’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Korea Loses Spot as Third Largest Sender of Students to the U.S.

By Jenna Gibson

In 2016, South Korea officially dropped from the third largest source of international students in the United States to the fourth largest, now sitting behind China, India, and Saudi Arabia. The gap is small – Saudi Arabia sent just 280 more students than Korea in 2016 – but with the number of Korean students in the United States on a downward trend, that gap may widen in the coming years.

Korea has been the third largest source of students studying in the U.S. since 2002, when it surpassed Japan (which has since dropped to ninth place). Up until the late 2000s, the number of Koreans choosing to study in the United States was growing. But the number has dropped from a high of 75,065 in 2008 to 61,007 in 2016.

The number is still impressive – second place India is about 26 times bigger than Korea, but sends only 3 times as many students to study abroad in the U.S. The problem is that the number of Korean students choosing to come to the U.S. has been steadily dropping, a trend that is likely to continue.

A 2015 KEI blog attributed the decline in study abroad to economics – “With rising costs overseas and a stagnant economy at home, more Korean students are choosing to stay put.” Considering that since then youth unemployment has continued to set records, leading to widespread pessimism among young Koreans – it’s unsurprising that the downward trend has continued.

Student Enrollment Colored

Interestingly, the total number of Koreans studying abroad has actually held steady at around 220,000 since 2014. It’s the geographic spread that has seen the biggest change – in 2016, China surpassed the United States for the first time as the biggest destination country for Korean students.

Many of those students are taking advantage of the fact that China is a relatively close and relatively cheap option for short-term study programs – 65 percent of Korean students in China were taking language or other educational courses. In comparison, the vast majority of Korean students in the United States (85 percent) were enrolled in a full undergraduate or graduate program.

International students are a huge boon to the United States both intellectually and economically – according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, tuition, fees, and living expenses from Korean students added $2.3 billion to the economy in 2014. The United States would do well to invest in advertising and scholarship programs to keep Korean students interested in choosing American schools for their study abroad experience.

 Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Tulane Public Relations’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons. Graphic by Juni Kim, KEI.

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Five Documentaries About Life in North Korea

By Jenna Gibson

Life in North Korea is largely unknown to much of the outside world. The following five documentaries provide insight into the lives of North Koreans and the challenges faced by those who try to escape.

1. Under the Sun (Available on Netflix)

This is Pyongyang, presented virtually without comment.  By Russian documentarian Vitaly Mansky, Under the Sun was originally begun with the sanction of the North Korean government. Throughout filming, Mansky was able to hide additional footage, which eventually made up the final documentary. It shows the main subjects, a young girl and her family, recording scenes over and over, with a government official off-screen directing every word, every movement, every smile captured by the camera.

If there is one critique of this documentary, it is that the lack of explanation makes this film inaccessible for viewers who are not well-versed in what’s going on in the DPRK. When I mentioned this to a Russian-American friend, however, she pointed out that this film was made with a Russian audience in mind – an audience that would immediately recognize some of the details in staging that Americans may miss. In any case, this is certainly an interesting and unique look into what the North Korean regime wants the outside world to see.

2. Crossing Heaven’s Border

This Emmy-nominated documentary by a South Korean journalist follows the desperate journey of North Korean defectors fleeing to freedom. It’s one thing to read that defectors have to endure a harrowing journey, it’s another thing to watch them crawl through miles of dense jungle, desperately trying to escape detection.

The journalist released a book of the same name a few years later, giving more of the backstory of how he decided to follow this journey, and the difficulties he and his crew endured (not to mention the defectors they were trailing).

3. The Lovers and the Despot

Truth is stranger than fiction, particularly when North Korea is involved. And this may be one of the most bizarre stories of all, involving a kidnapped actress, her unsuccessful savior, and a movie-loving dictator.

Kim Jong-il was notorious for his love of movies, and directed many films over his lifetime.

In 1978, he decided that he needed new talent to star in his projects, and decided to lure prominent South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee to Hong Kong, where she was kidnapped by North Korean agents. Her ex-husband, South Korean director Shin Sang-ok, attempted to find her, and wound up in Pyongyang as well.

The most fascinating piece of this film is the actual recorded conversations between Kim Jong-il and his captives, which the two secretly recorded in part to prove that the crazy story of their disappearance truly did happen. This is a must-see for casual or more serious DPRK-watchers.

4. I am Sun Mu (Available on Netflix)

This film shows a very different side to the plight of the North Korean people – following a defector artist who is pushing back against the regime. Sun Mu (a psedonym that means “no boundaries”) was once a propaganda artist in North Korea. Now, after having escaped, he has turned his art into satire against the regime.

The film follows Sun Mu as he prepares for an art show in China, a bold and dangerous proposition considering the close ties between Beijing and Pyongyang. This documentary is must-see for casual and professional North Korea watchers alike.

5. Frontline – Secret State of North Korea

Using secret footage smuggled out of North Korea as well as defector and expert interviews, this film is aimed mainly for a general audience that may not know much about North Korea. A lot of the focus is on how North Korea has changed, including the emerging black market. This project is a great introduction into life in North Korea today.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Clay Gilliland’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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China’s One-Two Punch: Beijing Targets Korean Tourism and Soaps to Protest THAAD Deployment

By Jenna Gibson

After nearly nine months of suspicion and speculation about Chinese economic retaliation for South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD, it seems Beijing has finally taken its gloves off.

First, major Chinese streaming sites announced they would no longer add popular Korean content to their pages. Then, just a few days after Korean conglomerate Lotte finalized a land-swap deal to provide one of its golf courses to host the missile defense system, Lotte’s Chinese website was hackedNow, authorities have told Chinese travel agencies to stop selling trips to South Korea.

Nearly half of tourists to Korea are from China – meaning that with its latest move Beijing is really hitting Seoul where it hurts.

A record number of Chinese tourists entered South Korea in 2016, even in the months following the original THAAD announcement last July — according to the Financial Times, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Korea increased by 27 percent year-on-year in the four months after the announcement.

But the effects of this new block from Beijing can already be seen – a spring reward trip for 4,000 employees of a Chinese company was cancelled suddenly after the announcement, according to the Incheon Tourism Organization.

Tour packages, especially large-scale trips offered by Chinese companies as a reward for successful employees, have become very popular in recent years, and have directly contributed to the boost in Chinese tourism to Korea.

Under this ban, however, all Chinese tour agencies, even those selling individual tickets, would be prohibited from selling trips to Korea.

If carried out, this could be a huge blow not only to companies directly related to the hospitality industry, but also to retail. According to the Korea Herald, 70 percent of sales at Korean duty-free shops last year came from Chinese tourists – a remarkable 8.6 trillion won ($7.4 billion). Data from the Korea Tourism Organization indicates that Chinese tourists spent an average of $2,391 per person while visiting Korea – meaning the 8 million Chinese tourists who visited Korea in 2016 brought nearly $20 billion into the local economy.

Chinese Tourism Graph

This comes at a particularly tough time for the restaurant industry, which has seen declining sales after the new Kim Young-ran anti-corruption law capped the amount someone could spend on a gift meal for government workers, teachers, and journalists at 30,000 won ($27). According to restaurateurs, the law, which went into effect in September 2016, caused a 25 percent drop in sales.

Stocks of tourism-related companies fell following Beijing’s announcement, with cosmetics companies, retailers, automakers and airlines bearing the brunt of the drop. According to VOA, Hyundai Motor stock finished down 4.4 percent after photos of a vandalized Hyundai car went viral on Chinese social media.

But Chinese opposition to THAAD may not tell the whole story. It’s clear that THAAD influenced the decision to restrict travel to Korea, block streaming of k-dramas, and attack Lotte, coming as it does on the back of the land-swap agreement. But China may also be trying to kill two birds with one stone here.

It’s no secret that Beijing has been frustrated about the explosive popularity of Korean dramas in China. In 2014, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body, decried the popularity of smash hit drama “My Love from the Star,” with one member saying “It is more than just a Korean soap opera. It hurts our cultural dignity.”

And in March 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security posted a warning on Weibo saying that “watching Korean dramas could be dangerous, and may even lead to legal troubles,” including domestic violence, divorce, and plastic surgery.

In addition, Korean tourism has recently been under fire in China for reasons unrelated to politics. In early 2016, news reports revealed that because of intense competition, many Korean travel agencies catering to Chinese visitors were cutting corners, providing cheap accommodations and cutting deals with shop owners to get a cut of whatever their customers bought. This resulted in tour packages that included up to six shopping mall visits in just two days.

At the time, a Chinese paper published a story titled “Korean tourism Ends up Being Pathetic,” saying in one case that a Korean travel guide wouldn’t let the tour bus leave a shopping center because the passengers didn’t spend enough money. And, according to the Financial Times, “The Chinese government last year [2016] informed South Korean tour agencies of plans to cut tourism from China by 20 per cent and limit shopping days on tours, diplomats briefed on the matter have said.”

The Korean government has since cracked down on these companies, revoking dozens of licenses and investigating complaints from tourists. But the experience, and Beijing’s response to it, may have driven Chinese travelers more toward domestic tour companies – which are now prohibited from selling trips to Korea.

With the THAAD spat, Beijing may be taking advantage of an opportunity they have long waited for – the chance to finally remove that pesky Hallyu from the picture. Whether Chinese fans of Korean shows and products go along with the plan remains to be seen.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from InterContinental Hong Kong’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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More than North Korean Diplomats Fled to the South in 2016

By Patrick Niceforo

Last year, North Korea dominated international headlines with stories about their satellite launch, ballistic missile launches, and two nuclear tests. However, another interesting phenomenon did not receive as much media attention. In 2016, while Thae Yong-ho’s defection from North Korea’s London embassy was widely covered, a total of 1,418  North Korean refugees entered South Korea, an 11.2 percent increase from the year prior and the first time that the number of refugees has gone up since 2013. What is the cause for this increase and what is the primary driver for North Koreans to leave?

The most dramatic shift in recent years occurred between 2011 and 2012 when the number of North Korean refugees entering South Korea fell from 2,706 to 1,502. DPRK watchers have suggested several reasons for this sudden drop including North Korea’s tightened border security, increased propaganda, and overall healthier economy relative to previous years. While it may be too soon to tell if this trend has reversed, the slight increase for 2016 may suggest a shift in defectors’ motivations. Experts have suggested that there is an increase in overall political dissatisfaction and deteriorating loyalty to the Kim regime. In fact, the North Korean government has even had to tighten border security in order to deal with the temporary bursts in defections after events such as flooding and high-profile defections.

Defectors 2005-2016

Experts have pointed to an increase in certain kinds of North Korean refugees, such as overseas laborers and individuals belonging to the middle-class, as a sign that more people are growing dissatisfied with the regime. In fact, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification concluded that, based on survey results, the number of North Korean defectors who self-identify as “middle-class” has jumped to over 55% after 2014 from 19% before 2001. According to another survey, 90% of defectors stated that living conditions have deteriorated under Kim Jong-un.  Also of note is the increase in high-level defections of North Korea’s elite, or at least increased mention of in the media. The data seems to suggest that a mix of political grievances and economic hardship are primary motivators for leaving North Korea as opposed to the famine in North Korea in the 1990s.

With this increase, South Korea is working to improve services for refugees. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification recently issued their Work Plan for 2017 in which they stated that their overall objective was to “Encourage North Korea to denuclearize by making right choices and lay the foundation for a peaceful unification.” Defectors also played a key role in their plans, including strategies to a) carry out follow up measures for social integration policy of North Korean defectors; b) spread consensus on the need for peaceful unification through participation and communication, as well as public-private cooperation; and c) provide unification education in preparation for a unified future.

North Korean refugees have also been prominently featured in the South Korean media recently with a number of biographies and popular television shows such as Now on My Way to Meet You. Whether these programs are explicitly part of a strategy to prepare South Korea for more North Korean refugees is unclear, but they do accomplish two related goals for the Ministry of Unification, promoting sympathy and social integration and undermining the Kim regime’s credibility by highlighting its inability to provide for its people.

Despite the increased exposure to the South Korean public, North Koreans still face many obstacles to assimilation such as gaps in physical health, bullying, and unemployment. Moreover, recent political developments have affected the travel status of North Korean refugees outside the Korean peninsula. Among the tens of thousands of people affected by President Trump’s executive order on travel restrictions is a small, but unspecified number of North Korean refugees. However small, the rising number of North Korean refugees entering South Korea may be a sign that the United States and other countries may likewise receive additional applications for asylum.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once said, “Freedom from want, freedom from fear and the freedom of future generations to inherit a healthy natural environment – these are the interrelated building blocks of human and therefore national security.” As of 2016, over 30,000 North Koreans have entered South Korea for one reason or another. Although the Kim regime is infamous for its labor camps and nuclear testing, it is the absence of opportunity and certain liberties that seem to be driving people out of North Korea.

Patrick Niceforo is an intern with the Korea Economic Institute and a graduate student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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Pokémon Go and the Potential of Augmented Reality Games In South Korea

By Patrick Niceforo and Gwanghyun Pyun

Pokémon Go is an augmented-reality (AR) mobile game in which users become Pokémon trainers and catch Pokémon outside. The developer, Niantic Labs, launched the game in United States, Australia and New Zealand on July 6th, 2016 and progressively expanded the game’s reach around the world. One of Pokémon Go’s unique features is that it has a social element; the game provides an opportunity to socialize and “catch” Pokémon with friends, which contributed to its explosive popularity.

Pokémon Go was released in the United States and quickly became the most popular augmented reality (AR) game of the year, beating out other titles such as Clash Royale and Candy Crush Saga. At its peak, Pokémon Go had roughly 20 million active users in the United States, and by the end of 2016, the game had garnered over $950 million worldwide. However, due to factors such as market saturation and a declining number of active users, Pokémon Go experienced a tremendous drop in revenue shortly after its launch. One estimate states that revenue dropped from $125 million in July to $15 million in November, with common complaints about the game including battery drain and repetitive gameplay. While the game was able to temporarily boost the number of active users with special events, Pokémon Go’s popularity has been steadily shrinking since its release.

While Niantic Labs launched Pokémon Go in many countries in North America and Europe, it did not fully launch in South Korea until January 23, 2017, despite the popularity of gaming there. At first, people guessed that the delay was because of the map used for the game. The South Korean government has not published a detailed map of the country outside its own borders, citing security concerns. However, on January 23, Niantic Labs suddenly announced the launch of Pokémon Go in South Korea without receiving the use of a detailed map from the government. Dennis Hwang, Chief Art Director at Niantic, explained that the delay was because they needed time to catch their breath after the huge response for Pokémon Go after its initial release. He also said the delayed launch is unrelated to the map issue because they only use publically accessible data sources.

Despite the delay, nearly 7 million people played the game during its first week in South Korea according to WiseApp, an app analytics company. Pokémon Go’s sales came in second place in the game category in both Google Play and the App Store during that period. Niantic Labs launched the game right before the Lunar New Year holiday, when many Koreans have extra free time.

However, many people in South Korea were pessimistic about Pokémon Go’s long-term success. Some predicted that this trend will be maintained only for two weeks as was the case in other countries such as the United States. Other people pointed out that people would not want to go out to catch Pokémon in January due to cold weather. In addition, people have pointed to repetitive game mechanics and the app’s susceptibility to hacking.

On a positive note, a Harvard study suggests that Pokémon Go and similar apps can, at least temporarily, boost levels of outdoor exercise. One of the study’s conclusions was that, on average, active Pokémon Go users walk 11 minutes more per day than non-users. On the other hand, the game has been criticized for increasing the level of trespassing on private property. Moreover, many have reported sustaining injuries such as ankle sprains and broken collarbones while playing the game. Based on a sample of tweets and news reports, one scholar estimated that over 110,000 Pokémon Go related road accidents occurred within a 10-day period in the United States. There is even a live “Death Tracker” with a worldwide list of deaths and injuries sustained due to Pokémon Go-related negligence.

Koreans also have been concerned about accidents related to AR games. The number of reported accidents related to Pokémon Go already have increased in South Korea. South Korean Police caught 36 drivers who enjoyed playing Pokémon Go while they were driving on the road from Jan 24 to Feb 2. Furthermore, there have been reports of safety and privacy issues at locations such as Gyeongju National Museum, a hot spot for catching Pokémon, where many active users have tried to enter flower gardens, run into walls, and trespassed in museum exhibits. On Feb 4, one girl lost her mother while playing Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go’s popularity opens the doors for a lot of potential in the AR field, and many Korean gaming companies are trying to develop their own AR games. Korean gaming companies such as Mgame and Hanbit Soft have plans to launch their own AR games similar to Pokémon Go. Mgame finished the second closed beta test for its own AR game, ‘Catchmon’ using AR and LBS (Location Based Service). Hanbit Soft also made ‘SoulCatcher AR’ using AR and GPS. They plan to launch their games during the first quarter of 2017.

Pokémon Go carries two major lessons as it enters South Korea’s national stage. First, Pokémon Go’s developers should focus on not only expanding their user-base, but also retaining it. Others have suggested several strategies for user retention including keeping popular features, introducing new features, and maintaining communication with the app’s users. Beyond Pokémon Go, there are other opportunities for apps to expand to different markets. A similar app, Pokemon Duel, is currently ranked number 1 in the United States but is unavailable in South Korea. South Korea has significant market potential for any popular app given that it has the world’s highest smartphone ownership rate– Niantic just has to figure out how to keep Korean Pokémon fanatics engaged with their game. Second, the game’s developers should prioritize safety in order to mitigate injuries sustained from playing the game. In fact, this concern was partially addressed in an earlier update to the game that prohibited gameplay when individuals were moving over a certain speed. South Korean users could take additional precautions by playing the game with friends and sticking to familiar, well-lit areas.

Gwanghyun Pyun is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Sogang University in South Korea. Patrick Niceforo is an intern with the Korea Economic Institute and a graduate student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Photo from Jill Carlson’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Grasping for Entertainment: The Rise of Claw Machines in South Korea

By Gwanghyun Pyun

Recently, the number of claw machines around downtown Seoul have greatly increased, especially in busy nightlife areas such as Sinchon, Hongdae and Gangnam. Unlike in the past when claw machines were scattered around the city’s sidewalks, the machines have become so popular that there are now shops that exclusively run claw machines for people to enjoy. Koreans call these claw machines ‘Inhyeong bbobkkii’ (literally translated as ‘picking up a doll’) and these shops are called ‘Inhyeong bbobkkii bang’ (translated as ‘picking up a doll room’). According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the number of registered picking up a doll room shops was 21 in February 2016, and had grown to 880 by December, a forty-fold increase.

Some experts have suggested that the ‘picking up a doll’ culture emerged from an era of low economic growth in Korea. According to Professor Kyung Ok Huh from Sungshin Women’s University,  this phenomenon is known as the ‘lipstick effect’. The ‘lipstick effect’ is an economic theory that says when the economy is in recession, consumers tend to buy inexpensive products instead of luxury items so that they can still have a small treat.

Since the global financial crisis, the South Korea economy has faced low economic growth, making it harder for people to get a job and therefore feel a sense of accomplishment. This is particularly so for young Koreans, who are experiencing record-high unemployment rates and who feel locked out of the system. However, the price of playing one round of a claw machine game is only 500 won (43 cents) to 1000 won (86 cents). Playing the game gives people an opportunity to obtain prizes such as dolls with comparatively little expense. Claw machines were also popular in Japan in the past due to a similar economic situation.

In addition to the lipstick effect, the so-called ‘Kidult culture’ has also promoted the popularity of claw machines. ‘Kidult’ is a mixed word using kid and adult, more specifically referring to adults who like things that bring back their childhood memories. Recently, many Korean young adults like childish characters such as Shin-chan, Pokemon, Marvel heroes, One-Piece figures and Kakao friends, and many claw machines are filled with these characters in the form of dolls. ‘Kidult culture’ appeared in South Korea, because young adults want to recall their childhood memories to escape from their present hardships. In this regard, the ‘Picking up a doll’ trend represents the hardships of young South Korean adults and how they overcome their day-to-day life challenges.

The ‘Picking up a doll’ craze is not the first trend that rose from an era of low economic growth. For the last three years, more South Koreans have become interested in food and cooking as evident by a growing number of cooking shows on TV. Koreans call such programs ‘cook-bang’ (an abbreviation of ‘cooking show’). In ‘cook-bang’ shows, famous professional chefs show viewers how to cook various cuisines and celebrities discuss how they taste. In the summer of 2015, cooking shows reached their peak, as there were 17 ‘cook-bang’ programs on major TV channels such as KBS, JTBC and tvN. Furthermore, many young Koreans began to upload pictures of food on social media outlets such as Instagram. This phenomenon is known as ‘Mukstagram,’ a mixed word that comes from the Korean verb “to eat” plus Instagram. The ‘cook-bang’ trend and ‘Mukstagram’ can also be understood in the same context as ‘picking up a doll’ trend. These trends suggest that young South Koreans seek some form of satisfaction through daily activities such as cooking to give themselves a break from everyday life.

Playing a claw machine can help distract from life’s hardships. On the other hand, it can be a source of addiction. ‘Picking up a doll’ can be considered to be a type of gambling, since it is difficult to pick up a doll on the first round and people want to keep on trying to get the doll. It resembles gambling in that people want to “hit the jackpot” by successfully snatching up a doll. Professor Younghwa Son from Keimyung University said that people delude themselves that the more they try, the higher the possibility to win. This phenomenon is so common among young people that they already created and use the word, ‘Tangjin jam,’ which can be translated as ‘run through all the money for fun’.

The ‘picking up a doll’ trend reflects South Koreans’ tough lives under an economic slowdown. This is just an entertainment trend and it can be over interpreted. However, the reason why many experts and major media in Korea are worried about it is the obvious fact that Korean economy has been getting worse, highlighting the need for a new economic growth engine.

Gwanghyun Pyun is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Sogang University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Barnimages.com’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Is Korea Ready to Move Past its Love-Hate Relationship with Chaebols?

Kyle Ferrier

As the Choi Soon-sil scandal has unfolded over the past several months the Korean public’s dissatisfaction with major Korean conglomerates known as chaebols has become second only to Park Geun-hye herself. Allegations of Park leveraging her political position to exchange favors with chaebols, particularly Samsung, are at the core of the public backlash. A recent poll showed about two thirds of Koreans not only view chaebols unfavorably, but as a drag on the economy, many citing growing inequality and corruption to back their response. While these criticisms may seem antithetical to Korean national pride in brands that have helped make the country a major global player, they are emblematic of a complicated love-hate dynamic in an economy many argue is too dependent on chaebols.

Socio-economic issues linked to the dominance of chaebols have prompted numerous attempts to systematically reform their rules, most recently by President Park in 2013, but have produced little change. Although the current scandal is hardly the first caused by blurred lines between business interests and politicians, mounting public scrutiny is unprecedented. Yet, is it enough to cause a major structural transition in the Korean economy?

The clearest example of the Korean draw to chaebols is a culture of striving to work for these companies. Working for a chaebol carries an almost unparalleled air of success and stability. The larger the chaebol, the greater the prestige for being in its employ. Samsung’s entrance exam is unsurprisingly quite popular with about 100,000 test takers in 2011 doubling to 200,000 by 2014, though only one in ten would secure a job that year. In 2015, Samsung had to switch to a new test to cut down on the overwhelming volume of exams by introducing separate screening assessments beforehand. This heightened competition for Samsung is indicative of a larger issue now in Korea: high youth unemployment.

Youth unemployment in Korea, defined for people aged 15 to 29, reached its highest point ever last year at 9.8 percent. For those 25 to 29, the unemployment rate was 8.2 percent, the highest point since 1999. Korean students consistently score among the highest achieving in the world—though not without high social costs which exacerbate the hardships of unemployment—yet there are not nearly enough new high skill jobs to meet demand. Chaebols are simply creating too few positions and the combination of their huge market share as well as the culture of working for these groups has made SME growth difficult. Young Koreans are keenly aware of this, as the recent poll revealing two thirds of Koreans do not view chaebols favorably also showed 75 percent of those in their 20s and 30s share the same sentiment.

Widespread perceptions of rising inequality stemming from a chaebol-centric economy are also not unfounded. A recent IMF report found the top 10 percent of Koreans earn as much as 45 percent of total income, earning Korea the unenviable title of most economically unequal country in the Asia-Pacific. Nepotism in chaebols is a highly visible contributor to this issue: leadership in most chaebols is passed down within the family and it is not uncommon for scarce entry-level openings to be filled by relatives of current employees. Parallels to the current scandal are hard to ignore. Also at play in the growing income polarization are a number of other factors, including an outdated labor regime consisting of regular and non-regular workers—who receive less pay and enjoy practically no job security.

The income disparity between regular and non-regular workers is greatly amplified when comparing chaebols to SMEs. According to the Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor, in 2015, compared to regular workers in chaebols, non-regular chaebol workers were compensated 65 percent as much, regular SME employees 50 percent as much, and non-regular SME workers 35 percent as much. It also worth noting that chaebols only employ around 10 percent of the population. Attempts to reform the labor system, much like those intended to directly govern chaebols, continue to be unsuccessful.

As several compelling op-eds have highlighted, even if the Constitutional Court upholds Park’s impeachment these problems will still remain, a notion many Koreans would find hard to disagree with. Among the potential presidential candidates Lee Jae-myung has been the most outspoken against the likes of Hyundai and Samsung, but Park and her predecessors’ record of actualizing campaign promises on chaebol reform is not promising. Rather, it suggests the weight of their influence may be too much to move with state-led reforms alone. Although policies are unlikely to change, the massive public response indicates the strength of a cultural shift that can gradually change the Korean economy from the bottom up.

While there are numerous similarities between past scandals and the current one, a key difference to account for the recent protests may be that many Koreans have reached their breaking point. It would be misguided to expect less applicants for Samsung vacancies, but working for a chaebol is starting to no longer be viewed as the end-all and be-all of success in Korea.

Recently innovative startups have been growing in number and in size, drawing from the scores of talented unemployed youth. These companies and other SMEs have greatly benefitted from a government infrastructure to incubate their growth, including billions of dollars in grants, overseas matchmaking, and mentoring. In the past decade, such initiatives to foster innovation and SME growth have been criticized for limited output. However, in many ways the problem has not been the programs themselves but rather a lack of demand, an altogether more difficult issue to tackle and a trend that seems to be reversing on its own.

As SMEs become more attractive places to work it looks as if the best policies to manage the economic dominance of chaebols is to continue to empower entrepreneurship. A stronger base of non-chaebol-dependent SMEs should also make pushing through chaebol regulations and labor reforms more politically feasible. While there is still a long way to go for Korea to build a more diverse economy and a healthier relationship with chaebols, momentum may be moving in the right direction.

Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from v15ben’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Korean Oscar Nomination that Could Have Been

By Jenna Gibson

Among the big Korean films of 2016, two of the biggest explored the colonial Japanese period, but they couldn’t be more different.

Age of Shadows, a box office success, is a spy thriller that follows a Korean police captain-turned double agent who reluctantly works with the Korean resistance. The other, The Handmaiden, twists and turns through the lives of two women, a Japanese noble and the handmaiden who was hired to con her. One is a more or less straightforward action movie with admittedly deep character building. The other is a subtle masterpiece of code-switching, sexuality, and empowerment.

One was put forward by Korea as their chance at the foreign language Oscar. The other was not.

The first thing I did when I saw the notification pop up on the bottom of my screen that the 2017 nominations were out was ctrl + f for my favorite two movies of the year. First, Moonlight – several well-deserved nominations, although I expected more. Then The Handmaiden…nothing. I was stunned.

After some frantic googling, I learned that others were shocked as well. And that the reason for this snub was not that it didn’t deserve a nomination (it certainly does), but that Korea had made a different choice for its one entry into the pool – Age of Shadows.

Korea has put forward films for consideration since 1962, and has done so regularly since the mid-1980s. It has never had a film chosen for nomination. After seeing this year’s choice, it’s not that Korea doesn’t have quality films (it does), but it may not be nominating the types of films the Academy is looking for.

Take, for example, Old Boy – probably the best-known Korean movie outside of the peninsula. It was widely acclaimed and won more than 30 awards from around the world, including the Grand Prix at Cannes. But Old Boy, which ironically was also directed by The Handmaiden’s Park Chan-wook, was not the film Korea put forward to the Academy in 2004*. Instead, they chose a movie called Tae Guk Gi, which, while a great war movie, only one a single award outside of Korea, from the U.S.-based Political Film Society. This doesn’t indicate the kind of broad, international appeal that Old Boy had, which may have hooked the members of the Academy.

This year’s gap is even more stark – The Handmaiden won 44 awards from all around the world, plus an additional 53 nominations. Age of Shadows, in contrast, won five awards, four of which were from domestic Korean organizations. Of course, having a laundry list of awards does not guarantee a film will do well at the Oscars. But it certainly indicates that The Handmaiden fits better into what film critics may be looking for.

Don’t get me wrong, Age of Shadows was a good movie. So were Rogue One and Dr. Strange. But none of them would ever be in real contention for an Oscar win (excluding, of course, well-deserved nods for visual/sound effects).

Perhaps the main problem goes back to how the two films handle a similar time period in drastically different ways. While The Handmaiden spins a tale of intrigue and romance that weaves implications of colonialism and oppression throughout, Age of Shadows takes a less subtle route.  The very first line of the film’s plot summary on Wikipedia says it is about “A Korean police captain named Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho) whose cruel Japanese overlords have charged him with rooting out members of his country’s resistance movement,” setting the scene for a very black-and-white action drama. In fact, as one critic wrote, “In short, mainstream audiences should get a kick out of this polished, often exciting patriotist drama. But those looking for a deeper, mightier resonance would be well advised to keep their expectations in check.”

In contrast, The Handmaiden is a layer of complexities, from its Shyamalan-worthy plot twists to its well-developed LGBT storyline to its portrayal of Korean identity and language under Japanese rule. In the words of Atlantic critic David Sims, “More than anything, The Handmaiden is just pure cinema, a dizzying, disturbing fable of love and betrayal that piles on luxurious imagery, while never losing track of its story’s human core.”

That human core, is key to Oscar success, as is taking universal themes like violence or loneliness and telling them in creative ways, had pervaded many of the Academy’s choices, particularly in the Foreign Language category. And while The Handmaiden lacks the gravitas of many previous winners, it certainly hits the mark on innovation.

Awards aren’t everything, and certainly neither are the Oscars. But it is frustrating to see such an innovative, unique, and genuinely entertaining film lose out on the chance to present itself in front of a huge audience of potential viewers from around the world. The Handmaiden and, frankly, Korean film in general, deserve better.  

*Because of special Academy Award eligibility rules for the foreign film category, Old Boy would have been submitted for the 2004 Oscars despite having been released at the end of 2003.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from lincolnblues’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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South Korea’s Dad Dilemma: More Fathers Take Paternity Leave but Large Gap Remains

By Jenna Gibson 

The South Korean government has been pretty creative in its search for a solution to their rock bottom birth rate – from subsidies for fertility treatment to encouraging employees to go home without saying goodbye to their boss. But one of the country’s giant conglomerates is taking a more drastic step by mandating that their male employees take a month off after having a child.

Lotte Group, which employs 180,000 people in Korea, announced at its recent “Way of Women” forum that they will start mandating paternity leave next year. They will also pay for the difference between the government’s subsidy of 1 million won ($853) and the employee’s full salary for a month of leave. They will also extend maternity leave from one year to two, and guarantee full pay for at least a month.

With this policy, Lotte is ahead of the curve – while South Korea guarantees a year of paternity leave for those that wish to take it, very few men choose to do so. Changing corporate culture and expectations could be key – in interviews conducted by Munhwa Daily this fall, men cited perception as one of the main reasons they chose not to take advantage of parental leave. One said he would be labeled a “weirdo” at work for being the only one in his office to take paternity leave. Another said he feared he would have a harder time moving up in his career and providing for his family afterwards.

Uphill Battle

South Korean fathers are notorious for spending very little time on household chores, including childcare. According to a 2014 OECD study, South Korean men spend the least amount of time in the OECD on “unpaid work,” setting aside only 45 minutes a day for routine housework, shopping and childcare. In contrast, Korean women spend nearly four hours per day on these types of tasks.

Korea’s strict work culture certainly plays a role. When Korean workers are spending an average of 347 hours longer at work each year than their OECD peers, something’s got to give. And, more often than not, the burden falls to women. While more women are trying to reset the work-life balance, they still often feel pressure to put their careers on hold after starting a family, leading to a noticeable dip in women’s workforce participation among 20-40 year olds.

But work culture also affects men who would otherwise like to spend more time with their families. Despite Korea providing a generous 52 weeks of paternity leave for new dads, only 4,872 men took advantage of leave in 2015, just 5.6 percent of the 87,339 people who took childcare leave last year.

The imbalance in which parent provides childcare has caused more than marital strife – experts have pointed to the issue as one of the root causes for Korea’s chronically low birth rate. Without the guarantee of a reliable parenting partner, Korean women have continued to delay marriage and childbirth. South Korean has made father-targeted programs a priority, aiming to increase the number of fathers taking paternity leave and spending time with their children.

Paternity Graphic Draft 2

Signs of Progress

While the wide gap remains, men are participating more in child-rearing than ever before. While the number of men taking paternity leave in 2015 is still minuscule, it does represent a steady increase. In fact, five times more Korean men took paternity leave in 2015 than in 2010.

Part of this could be due to the explosive popularity of television shows that revolve around fathers. One, called “Dad! Where are We Going?” followed a group of celebrity dads taking their kids on camping trips around Korea. The show got great reviews, and has been remade in China, Vietnam and Japan.

Another, “Return of Superman” shows the daily life of celebrity dads when they’re left alone with their kids. The key here is the growth of these fathers over time – when they first appear on the show, many of them have no clue how to cook basic meals or change their babies’ diapers. Viewers can relate to these struggles, and also learn some parenting techniques along with the dads on screen.

The families that appear on these shows have become household names – the Song triplets, three adorable toddlers who appeared on “Return of Superman” for two years with their actor father, were rated the fifth most popular celebrities in Korea in 2015. The kids raked in $4.26 million from appearing in 11 different ad campaigns in 2015.

But these super dads may be influencing more than just viewer’s shopping habits – they may be pushing more Korean fathers to up their parenting prowess.

While it may seem like a stretch to say that a TV show could influence viewers’ behavior so drastically, there have been plenty of cases around the world that show otherwise. In India, for example, a hyper-popular soap opera led to an increased interest in marrying for love. And a South African show increased awareness in HIV/AIDs prevention among its viewers.

Even in Korea it’s easy to see the impact of celebrities – after actress Song Hye Kyo was seen applying a Laneige lipstick in the powerhouse drama Descendants of the Sun, the product began flying off shelves. And sales of the Hyundai Tucson SUV rose 10 percent in the month after it appeared on the show.

Of course, choosing which lipstick to buy is a long way from changing your parenting style, but there is some evidence that Korean parents are taking note of these celebrity dads. In a recent survey of Korean women with children under the age of 3, for example, the moms indicated that “Return of Superman” did have some impact on their husbands’ behavior.

When asked if their husbands are similar to those shown on TV, 40 percent of moms said “My husband is somewhat different from the ones presented on TV shows, but he tries really hard.” The second most common response, at 25.8 percent, was “My husband tries to spend spare time with the kids, and resembles the hero daddies on TV from time to time.” Still, 21.8 percent of the women agreed with the sentiment that while their husbands take some responsibility for child-rearing, the example shown by celebrity dads on TV are somewhat unrealistic for the average husband.

At the same time, when asked which “Return of Superman” star is their favorite, the most popular answer was actor Ki Tae-young, who was described as a father who diligently educates himself on parenting techniques. We may find that the only force powerful enough to overcome workplace stigma might be Korean entertainment.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. KEI interns Sungeun (Grace) Chung and Min Tae Chung assisted with research and translation for this post.

Image from Photo and Share CC’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.