Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking Back at 2013 and Looking Forward to 2014

As I have been busy writing my five-part series about the AYAR Student Movement (here, here, here, here, and here), I have not had the time to extend to you any seasonal greetings.

If I may be allowed to speak personally for a moment, I started this blog in June, about three months after I had been discharged from the ROK Army, out of sheer boredom.  I did not have a job at the time, I did not know there were other K-bloggers out there, and I just decided to write to stave off boredom and creeping depression as I received one rejection letter after another from the places that I applied to for jobs.  My inspiration to write this blog came from none other than The Korean, the blogger behind Ask a Korean.

(This is not to say that I compare myself to The Korean.  Firstly, some of his politics annoys me and secondly, he is a blogger of a far superior caliber than I am.)

When I initially started blogging, I had no idea that anyone was ever going to end up reading anything that I wrote.  I simply imagined that I was writing an open-to-all public diary of sorts that I thought was going to be forgotten in some haunted corner of the World Wide Web, never to be read, and soon to be forgotten.

In the six months since I have started blogging, however, I found a decent job, and I have also found a social life outside of my job as well as my blogger persona.  Yes, I do keep all three separate.  But more importantly, I have discovered, much to my surprise, that there are people who actually read my chicken scratches.

I do not pretend to be ignorant of the fact that, due to the content of this blog, I have rubbed people the wrong way; some more so than others.  In fact, most of the responses that I got to my blog posts, both here on this blog and elsewhere on the Internet, were vehement opposition rather than pleasant agreement.

But that does not matter.  What matters is that, though not always entirely pleasant, people, you, have taken the time to read what I had written, and took the time to write back and argue with me, and sometimes, to agree with me.  As someone who never imagined that anyone would ever read anything I have to write besides myself, it was a great joy.

So thank you, dear readers, for making 2013 a surprisingly fun year.  I hope that 2014 will bring better fortune to us all.

So, though belated, I would like to wish all of you a Merry Christmas, and though still a bit early, a Happy New Year.

John Lee
The Korean Foreigner


An Analysis of the "Are You All Right?" Movement - Part 5: Choosing Sides

On the one hand, we have the near-fascistic government that thinks that it can bully a segment of the population into cowering submission, which wants the public to think that it represents law and order.

On the other hand, we have a manipulative public sector union that wants to protect its members’ iron rice bowls all the while wanting the public to think that it is the champion of the working class.

Once again, and lamentably so, economics has been trumped by politics.


For its part, the government does not appear to wish to work with unions to solve labor issues or to restructure the economy into a “creative economy,” whatever that means. For all intents and purposes, the government appears to want to dictate terms and for the union to simply follow orders.

As for the unions, they do not appear to wish to work with the government either. They have little desire for reforms out of fear of losing their protected jobs and (relatively) cushy wages and benefits. Additionally, we have a growing number of university students who seem to think that siding with the unions is somehow in their own self-interest. Never mind the fact that one of the functions of unions is to protect existing members from having to compete with younger workers.

For good or for ill, this is now a battle that each side feels that it must win. However, all of the combatants have very similar goals that only differ in extent and intent.

The same goal

As much as the government may want to establish a KORAIL subsidiary, it does not, in fact, have any desire or incentive to privatize KORAIL. Even if there are genuine free market capitalists (or at least fiscal hawks) within the government, all incumbents have one desire and one desire only – to be reelected (unless constitutionally prohibited). As aloof as Saenuri lawmakers may appear to be, they have very little incentive to stand for principles when standing for principles will get them booted from their seats of power.

The business executives of KORAIL do not wish to see their business privatized either. What they want is to establish a KORAIL subsidiary to run high-speed train services so that they and their shareholders can pocket the profits that they might earn through the subsidiary all the while still being subsidized by the government in order to keep its main business kept afloat by the taxpayers. They want to have their cake and eat it, too.

The union members of KORAIL are the most dead set against privatization for the most obvious reasons. Whenever a publicly-run business becomes privatized, in order to boost profitability and efficiency, labor, being the easiest cost to cut, becomes the first to be sent to the chopping block. The university students are in agreement with the unions.

I am an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism. I haven’t a dog in this fight. As far as I am concerned, they are all wrong.

As unpleasant as choosing the lesser of two evils is, however, sometimes a choice has to be made. As unpleasant as it may be to choose between two evils, if that objection were to be accepted literally, people would have no choice whatsoever but to become pacifists – a moral position that can only encourage evil, rather than punish it.


One way or another, the public has to make a choice; and the public ought to side with the unions over the government.

I did not choose to support the unions because of some kind of sympathy I might have for them. I have very little patience for many of the unions’ causes. However, I have chosen to support the unions, and encourage others to do so as well, for two reasons.

Firstly, it is because the government is far more powerful than the unions. The government has more journalists, intellectuals, pundits, corporate leaders, and (most importantly) guns than the unions. Secondly, it is because the government can (and has) cause much more harm to the economy, as well as to human rights, than the unions ever could.

However, that does not mean that a victory for the unions will translate to anything good for the people. As already mentioned in my previous post, the unions’ interests is not, in fact, the same as that of the public’s. I am supporting the unions only because I want the unions and the government to expend every bit of political capital (as well as actual capital) each side might possess in order to fight each other long enough until both sides are exposed to the public for what they really are – entrenched political organizations that are fighting over the public’s money.

The fact is that the public sector unions are the Little Brother to the government’s Big Brother. However, right now, there has been a falling out between the thugs and they have chosen to engage in combat.

As for the government, despite its insistence, it is not fighting to improve economic liberties or market efficiency. The government’s battle with the public sector unions should be a fight over fiscal responsibility. It is not. It is merely a battle over who gets to control the loot that we call tax revenues.

There are other (supposed) capitalists in the mainstream media who are anti-union but their anti-union stance is translated to being pro-government. That is either a mistake on the part of genuine capitalists who have not thought their positions through thoroughly or they are, in fact, nothing more than government mouthpieces.

The AYAR students, for their part, fall into one of several different categories.
  • They feel that the “system” that they were preparing to become a part of their whole lives has abandoned them, and are now fighting with the unions to preserve the status quo, all the while knowing that the status quo has been broken for decades.
  • They genuinely, and naively, believe that their self-interests and the unions’ interests are one and the same. If so, their teachers and professors are to blame for having crippled their minds with such debilitating nonsense.
  • They are angry and anxious about the future but because they are unsure of what is actually wrong, they have laid the blame on the most convenient targets – the government and the corporations. Though governments and corporations certainly do share a lot of the blame, there is more of it to go around, but it is much easier to damn others and the “scourge of capitalism” than it is to question one’s own ethics, morality, and culture.
  • They might genuinely know not what they do. Despite their claims otherwise, they might not possess all the information that they need to make an educated decision. If this is the case, it would appear that, without intending to or even seeming to fully understand the consequences or even the reasons behind their actions, the students have made the best choice possible under the circumstances by throwing their weight behind the unions.
If their siding with the union was the result of dumb luck, for their sake, I hope that the students learn more about economics and economic realities before wading into economic discussions in the future. Barring that, I hope that dumb luck continues to favor them that they may continue to make sound decisions.

However, the AYAR Movement, despite its seemingly educated background, is nothing more than just another mob. And all mobs are passionately unthinking and full of obnoxious self-righteousness regardless of whose side they are on. As such, I will not place too much hope on them. Doing so will lead to one disappointment after another.

So, though I have decided to throw my support behind the unions, and, again, I encourage others to do so as well, I do so with great disgust.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, may there be a plague on both their houses.


UPDATE: The unions just agreed to end their strike after the ruling and opposition parties promised to form a parliamentary subcommittee aimed at ensuring no privatization of rail services.

So, never mind.  Government - 1, Unions and Students - 0, The Public - -1.  Oh, joy.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

An Analysis of the "Are You All Right?" Movement - Part 4: The Union's False Narrative

That the government has broken its promises as well as lost the public’s trust is a given. However, assuming that the unions and their student supporters are nothing more than unfortunate victims is the pinnacle of naiveté.

Regardless of one’s political inclinations, everyone must recognize the unions’ right to exist, as well as the AYAR Movement’s support for the unions, as it is guaranteed by the Republic of Korea Constitution in Article 21, Section 1, which states:

All citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly and association.

However, it has to remembered that a right cannot and must not violate the rights of others. Any right that does so ceases to be a right and instead becomes a privilege that can only be guaranteed through violence.


Furthermore, it must also be remembered that the Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL) is a government-owned corporation, which is funded by government subsidies. It also has to be remembered that the government has no money of its own. The only source of funds that the government has is its tax revenue and its mint.

As such, this state-run rail operator’s labor union is a public union, a union that has successfully managed to compel KORAIL to pay out bonus payments and raise employees’ wages by more than five percent every year since 2005 despite the fact that the company was posting an average annual operating loss of US$470 million. KORAIL’s debt is currently estimated to be around US$17 billion. This debt is expected to reach ₩50 trillion (US$47 billion) by 2020.

Only a public-sector industry can limp along for as long as KORAIL has while paying wages and bonuses that it cannot afford without being forced to declare bankruptcy.

Although we have to wait until the dust settles, which could take a long while, before it can be calculated how much the union’s strike is costing the overall economy, it is already estimated to have reached into the millions of dollars, and could potentially reach into the billions.

Essentially, this monopolistic public union of a monopolistic government-owned corporation has once again decided to hold the public hostage in order to guarantee that its members can continue to hold on to their iron rice bowls at the taxpayers’ expense.


The union, along with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), as well as the AYAR students have attempted to paint their strike against the government as a battle between the People and the Police State. For reasons that have already been mentioned in my previous post and its near-fascistic use of the police to arrest union workers, the government has all but ensured complete alienation from the people.

The unions, for their own part, are reliving their glory days. Since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, union memberships have continuously fallen with the exception of those in the civil service, which has actually seen an increase in membership (surprise, surprise). However, thanks to President Park Geun-hye’s spectacularly mediocre ability at governance, the unions have come roaring back to life as they have been given the perfect excuse to appear to be resisting against a dictatorship; just as they had done in the 1970s and 80s.

Despite all of the Park administration’s faults, and they are legion, it is not a dictatorship. Nor is there even a real threat of a return to dictatorship. Any contrary claim is hyperbolic speech. But its incompetence has given the impression of a return to the bad old days. This impression was all that the unions needed.

We have to take note that the main thrust of the unions’ argument is that they are opposed to the privatization of KORAIL. This is despite the government’s (frustratingly) repeated insistence that it has no plans to privatize KORAIL and its promise to revoke the proposed subsidiary’s rail service license if its stakes are ever sold to private investors.

We also have to take note that the unions seldom ever talk about the aforementioned numbers. It cannot afford to do so unless it wishes to lose the people’s sympathies. Any prolonged mentioning of economic realities will not do the unions any favors. As a result, the unions continue to obfuscate the numbers and have gamed the narrative as an ideological battle.


As far as the unions are concerned, this is not a fight about how much their salaries and benefits are costing (or will cost) the taxpayers but rather about how President Park is trying to force her right-wing, anti-union agenda at the expense of the working class.

What the unions are NOT saying is that they feel they are entitled to continue to suckle on the teat of the taxpayers in order to preserve their iron rice bowls; damn the fact that the business they work for is a bottomless money pit.

We have to keep in mind that neither the unions’ nor the AYAR Movement’s message is about freedom against a dictatorship – as was the case in the 1970s and 80s. What they are calling for is the maintenance of the broken status quo. The unions have claimed that they are fighting for their families and that they are champions of the working class, but at the end of the day, what they want is for the taxpayers to continue to pay up. Damn the consequences and damn the ethics!

The KORAIL union’s successful attempt at conscripting the aid of the rest of the unions under the KCTU umbrella is a cynical ploy to fool the people into believing that they are one and the same despite the fundamental difference between private and public-sector unions. That is because the public-sector union workers do not have a leg to stand on without the aid of private-sector unions.

Although union strikes have the same goal in mind, the main distinction between private and public unions is that private sector unions cannot make unreasonable demands of their employers. The best example of this is what had occurred in General Motors Korea (GMK). During the summer, GMK workers went on a partial strike to demand a raise in their monthly salaries as well as for a one-time bonus payment of ₩6 million each.

GMK workers have since been forced to learn that there are consequences to their actions when it was recently reported that General Motors plans to reduce its workforce in Korea. There is also increased speculation that one of the reasons that General Motors may eventually shut down its operations in Korea is due to Korea’s frustrating labor environment.

On the other hand, public-sector unions are under no such constraint. KORAIL is a monopolistic government-owned corporation. Although not unheard of, governments are much less likely to end up in bankruptcy court than privately owned businesses. As such, public sector unions can hold the government and the taxpayers hostage with relative impunity.


If the government refuses to give in to their demands, which will either force the government to go further into debt (which increases the risk of government insolvency) or raise taxes or borrow from future generations, the unions either slow down or shut down essential(?) government functions through strikes. Unsurprisingly, the unions then lay the blame on conservative politicians.

Though this is certainly not to say that all KORAIL workers are cynical politicos, it has to be recognized that the aggregate public sector employees’ salaries, benefits, and promised pensions that the government (read, taxpayers) is supposed to pony up is both an economic as well as an ethical problem.

There is nothing to suggest that the students behind the AYAR Movement are in cahoots with the public sector union. For all intents and purposes, despite the claims about not being oblivious about politics or economics, it seems that the university students are not, in fact, fully aware of the facts. Filled with energy and rosy ideals, it would appear that the students, both pro-union and pro-government, are once again being used as pawns in a political battle whose outcome, either way, will not be helpful to them.

The Occupy Movement started with grand hopes and ideals. For all their hopes and ideals, however, they lacked the insightful knowledge about politics or economics that they claimed to possess. As a result, just like the Tea Party Movement was hijacked by Republican operatives, the Occupy Movement was hijacked by Democratic operatives. If history is any indicator of what is to come, it would seem that the progressive AYAR Movement, as well as its as yet unnamed conservative counterpart, is destined to become part of the political machine, too.

What a shame that would be for everyone.

(Next and final installment: Choosing Sides)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

An Analysis of the "Are You All Right?" Movement - Part 3: Government's Lies and Incompetence

It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war. It is a statement that appears to apply to any and all kinds of wars, just as it applies to the political battle between the AYAR Movement and the unions on one side and the government on the other.

It has been almost a year since President Park Geun-hye assumed the presidency after making repeated promises of “economic democratization.” Considering the past year of her presidency, one can make one of the following deductions:

  1. She made only the most superficial of policy changes without actually transforming the Korean economy into a welfare economy.
  2. She genuinely believes in “economic democratization” but gave up on it due to strong opposition and/or having an insufficient budget to pay for an increase in welfare programs and/or benefits.
  3. She never intended to transform the economy into a welfare economy – she lied to get elected and has chosen to return to her original stances on issues now that she no longer has to worry about any more future elections.

As an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, I am somewhat relieved that President Park has not decided to pursue greater welfare policies and has continued to seek more free trade deals with other nations around the world. (That being said, I would be much happier if I saw a reversal of a great many governmental programs that are currently in existence.)

However, both President Park and the ruling Saenuri Party are receiving the ire of the people, particularly young people, because they either broke their promises or they lied from the get-go.

If what we are seeing today is a result of the government’s inability to meet the president’s as well as Saenuri lawmakers’ campaign promises due to political or economic realities, then though morally forgivable, in the next election, they deserve to be voted out of office so that others can be given the opportunity to see through their vision. All the good intention in the world is nothing more than a poor excuse in the face of incompetence.

On the other hand, if what we are seeing today is the result of their deliberately lying to the people for no other purpose than to ensure electoral victory, which appears more likely, in the next election, they deserve to be trounced thoroughly. There are enough charlatans and power-lusters in the world as it is. The world will not miss them when they are chucked out.


The Park administration is on the receiving end of the AYAR Movement’s ire because the Park administration, as well as the Saenuri leadership, utterly failed to communicate their ideas to the people.

They could have expressed to the people early on that economic realities cannot permit the kinds of sweeping welfare reforms that people want; that they can attempt to make only minor changes. They could have treated the voters as adults and warned them that anyone who promises to give them one government subsidy after tax benefit were liars. Instead, they chose to engage in demagoguery.

If they are indeed defenders of the free market (a laughable idea), then they should have defended their own principles. Being power-lusters, however, they instead chose to deny and contradict, all the while claiming that it was the pragmatic and the grown-up thing to do, until they had nothing left to betray. How do they expect anyone to believe a word they have to say when they have never known a single moment of principled permanence?

What the Park administration and the Saenuri Party are facing can only be described as a crisis of no confidence. Even if they had done none of the above, the Park administration could have bought itself some trust by having actively engaged in the National Intelligence Service (NIS) scandal.

Much like the emperors of old, however, President Park chose to remain aloof in an attempt to most likely appear above petty politics. In all the sound and fury that are surrounding the NIS’ attempt to manufacture public opinion before last year’s presidential election, there has not been a single shred of evidence to suggest that President Park had been directly involved in any NIS-led conspiracy to meddle in the elections.

Having won the election, whether the NIS’ manufacturing of public opinion had any real effect on her electoral victory or not, it should not have come as any surprise that people would claim that she benefited from the NIS’ actions.

President Park should have done the right thing from the very beginning by firing the NIS Director, reaching out to the opposition party to launch a very public bipartisan special investigation into the matter, arrest every single person involved in the actions, and disavow any and all illegal activities.


Even if she had done all that, the rest of the year would not have been smooth sailing. Not by a long shot. The progressives in the National Assembly would have still continued to throw as many stumbling blocks across the president’s path as often as they could have. But the important thing is that she could have begun her presidency on the right foot. She could have retained at least some credibility with the people.

Now, however, with everything that had been said and done, the government appears aloof and, above all else, illegitimate while President Park appears as though she has something to hide.

And now the government has the audacity to claim that they are arresting public union leaders who held the public hostage for the sake of the public. The government lost the public’s trust a long time ago and now has the added benefit of being accused of following in the footsteps of President Park Chung-hee's anti-democratic and anti-union thuggery. Furthermore, the government is borrowing a page from none other than Richard Nixon’s idea of the great silent majority. They are operating on the premise that because there is a large sector of the population that is not protesting with the union workers or with the students behind the AYAR Movement, that somehow, they are standing up for the “real” Korean people.

And the gullible right-wing voters are only too happy to side with the government believing that it is fighting for market efficiency for the sake of the “common good” and against the “subversive outside forces.”

It would be comical if the whole thing wasn’t so damned tragic.

(In my earlier entry, I implied that I was going to talk about the false narrative of the People and the Police State. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to talk about the unions’ and the AYAR Movement’s anything-but-heroic role in all this. I will talk about that in the next installment.)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An Analysis of the "Are You All Right?" Movement - Part 2: The Big Question

As I read the “Are You All Right?” (AYAR) letter, the letter that started it all, and perused the movement’s Facebook page, I came across hundreds of handwritten letters that others have posted online. I am sure that if I bothered to do a Naver search, I would have found more.


As I read dozens of these letters, I realized that I had seen something similar to all of this before. I saw it a little over two years ago in the United States and it was called the Occupy Movement; though that is not to say that they are identical.

Most of the letters that I read, like the original letter, were political in nature as the writers wrote to express their support for union workers and their disgust with the government, specifically President Park Geun-hye. One of the writers that I came across addressed his letter to President Park directly. He wrote his letter with his own blood.

Others were more personal. There were university students who were afraid that there weren’t any jobs waiting for them while there were middle school and high school students who were tired of being sent to hagwons after school. One of the more heartbreaking letters that I read was written by an older parent who wrote to express his/her anxiety and sadness over the fact that his/her two grown sons could not find jobs. However, even in these personal letters people were able to somehow manage to squeeze in bits and pieces about their opposition to privatization of the railroads, as well as education, utilities, health care, etc. In Korean, this kind of practice is often referred to as 끼워맞추기.


However, the common theme that I saw in most of those letters were their opposition to the privatization of railroads. The leitmotif could be summed up thusly: “With the railroad about to be privatized, how can I be all right?”

Considering the fact that the original letter had been addressed to the general public, and all the subsequent letters that have been written since have been written by members of the public who are sympathetic to the original writer’s beliefs, I have to question why these people seem to think that the privatization of the railroads is not in the interests of the general public.

And that is the big question that is missing in these letters – Why. They successfully managed to state the “what.” But not “why.”

  1. Why is the continued subsidization of the railroad industry and all other government-owned or government-run services good for the general public?
  2. Why do they feel that those workers are entitled to safe and permanent jobs?
  3. Why do they feel that they are entitled to safe and permanent jobs?

However, those were only the political questions that they did not ask. They did not even bother to talk about the more abstract principles. Either they had no interest in it or they accepted it as a given. Questions such as:

  1. What is the proper role of government?
  2. What is the proper role of unions?
  3. What is capitalism?
  4. What is welfarism?

Not only were these questions never asked, they implied and assumed from the very get-go that their views are requisite for any “good society.” Much like the Occupy Movement’s list of demands were never explained properly as to why they were for the good of everyone, the AYAR Movement does the same thing with their stance on subsidization. Why is it good for the general public? Not only do they not provide an answer, they did not even bother to ask the question.


The closest to stating the question of why came when, according to a news report from The Hankyoreh, Kang Hun-gu, another in this growing list of university students who are filling the ranks of the AYAR Movement, said:

Some are calling us ‘subversive outside forces, but we are the true insiders, the ones who headed out to Seoul Station for our own well-being – as people who would not be okay if the railways were privatized, and would not be okay if the workers faced mass suspensions. If it’s subversive to talk about your own well-being, then we’re going to be totally subversive now.”

But that still does not answer the question. To use Mr. Kang’s words, why would people not be okay if the railways were privatized? Why would it not be conducive to the general public’s well being?

(As an aside, it is humorous that some individuals in government seemed to have thought that it would be a good idea to call these university students “subversive outside forces.”  How wonderfully ironic, and poignant, that those idiots seem to be more than willing to be the stereotype that those students are accusing them of being in the first place!  That being said, how ludicrous is it that these university students seem to want these same government stooges to keep control of an industry full of workers for whom they seem to share so much solidarity with?)

The absence of these questions is unfortunate. However, it has to be recognized that the AYAR Movement became the sensation that it has become because the original letter struck an emotional chord with the people.

In my experience, social movements do not usually last for very long if the fired up emotions that led to the initial push are not backed up by intellectual arguments. That being said, either through governmental decrees or cultural suppression, the Korean people have not been allowed to express their innermost thoughts for a very long time. It could take a while before the people finish venting their frustrations.

Next Installment: The People vs. The Police State – A False Narrative

Sunday, December 22, 2013

An Analysis of the "Are You All Right?" Movement - Part 1: The Translation

This is the first part of my analysis of Korea’s latest social movement, the “Are You All Right?” (AYAR) Movement.

The first installment of this analysis will simply be a translation of the letter that started it all  the hand-written letter that was posted by Ju Hyun-u, a 27-year old Korea University student a little less than two weeks ago.

I found the letter on the AYAR Movement’s Facebook page and have attempted to translate the letter to the best of my abilities. Any error in the translation is strictly mine and mine alone.


안녕들 하십니까?

Hello. How are you?

1. 어제 불과 하루만의 파업으로 수천 명의 노동자가 일자리를 잃었습니다. 다른 요구도 아닌 철도 민영화에 반대한 이유만으로 4,213명이 직위해제된 것입니다. 박근혜 대통령 본인이 사회적 합의 없이는 추진하지 않겠다던 그 민영화에 반대했다는 구실로 징계라니. 과거 전태일 청년이 스스로 몸에 불을 놓아 치켜들었던 ‘노동법’에도 “파업권”이 없어질지 모르겠습니다.

1. Yesterday, after striking for one day, thousands of workers lost their jobs. For no other reason than to oppose the privatization of the rail roads, 4,213 people were relieved from their positions. President Park Geun-hye punished the workers who protested against the privatization of the railroads, something which she herself promised that she would not engage in without first obtaining the people’s permission. It is possible that even the right to strike, which is part of the countrys “Labor Laws,” that were enacted after the self-immolation of Jeon Tae-il could also disappear.

정부와 자본에 저항한 파업은 모두 불법이라 규정되니까요. 수차례 불거진 부정선거의혹, 국가기관의 선거개입이란 초유의 사태에도, 대통령의 탄핵소추권을 가진 국회의 국회의원이 ‘사퇴하라’고 말 한 마디 한 죄로 제명이 운운되는 지금이 과연 21세기가 맞는지 의문입니다.

That is because any protest against the government or against capital is going to be designated as being illegal. Despite the numerous times we have been told about the fraud in last year’s presidential election and the fact that there had been illegal interference in the election by government officials, a member of the National Assembly who has the right to vote to impeach the president was expelled from the National Assembly for daring to suggest resignation. It is difficult to imagine that we are living in the 21st century.

시골 마을에는 고압 송전탑이 들어서 주민이 음독자살을 하고, 자본과 경영진의 ‘먹튀’에 저항한 죄로 해고노동자에게 수십억의 벌금과 징역이 떨어지고, 안정된 일자리를 달라하니 불확실하기 짝이 없는 비정규직을 내놓은 하수상한 시절에 어찌 모두들 안녕하신지 모르겠습니다!

In one rural town, a high voltage electrical tower was installed, which has resulted in the suicide of one of the town’s residents. Furthermore, for the crime of “dining and dashing,” workers who have lost their jobs are being fined millions of won and being sentenced to prison. In these dubious times, I do not know how anyone can be all right.

2. 88만원 세대라 일컬어지는 우리들을 두고 세상은 가난도 모르고 자란 풍족한 세대, 정치도 경제도 세상물정도 모르는 세대라고들 합니다. 하지만 1997~98년도 IMF 이후 영문도 모른 채 맞벌이로 빈 집을 지키고, 매 수능을 전후하여 자살하는 적잖은 학생들에 대해 침묵하길, 무관심하길 강요받은 것이 우리 세대 아니었나요? 우리는 정치와 경제에 무관심한 것도, 모르는 것도 아닙니다. 단지 단 한 번이라도 그것들에 대해 스스로 고민하고 목소리내길 종용받지도 허락받지도 않았기에, 그렇게 살아도 별 탈 없으리라 믿어온 것뿐입니다.

2. Known as “The ₩880,000 Generation,” the world thinks of us as a generation that has never known what it is to be poor; an affluent generation. A generation that knows nothing about politics or economics or what is going on in the rest of the world. However, wasn’t it our generation, the generation that grew up alone during the IMF Crisis of 1997~1998 as we had to guard the empty houses that we lived in, that was forced to stay quiet; to prepare for the University Entrance Exams despite the fact that many of our fellow students committed suicide, and to be indifferent? We are not indifferent to politics or to economics. Nor are we oblivious about them. It is just that we were never asked or were given permission to think about those issues for ourselves, or to give voice to our opinions. We were led to believe that we could live our lives being quiet and not have to worry.

그런데 이제는 그럴 수조차 없게 됐습니다. 앞서 말한 그 세상이 내가 사는 곳이기 때문입니다. 저는 다만 묻고 싶습니다. 안녕하시냐고요. 별 탈 없이 살고 계시냐고요. 남의 일이라 외면해도 문제없으신가, 혹시 ‘정치적 무관심’이란 자기합리화 뒤로 물러나 계신 건 아닌지 여쭐 뿐입니다. 만일 안녕하지 못하다면 소리쳐 외치지 않을 수 없을 겁니다. 그것이 무슨 내용이든지 말입니다. 그래서 마지막으로 묻고 싶습니다. 모두 안녕들 하십니까!

However, we cannot live like that anymore. That is because the world that I live in is the kind of world that I had described earlier. I just want to ask you if you are doing all right. Do you really not have any worries? Do you turn the other cheek because you think that it is someone else’s problem? Are you stepping back, rationalizing your indifference to politics? If you are not all right, then I don’t think you can stop yourself from declaring so, regardless of what is ailing you. So I’d like to ask just one last time – Are you all right?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

High Youth Unemployment? Blame the Parents.

On Monday, December 16th 2013, The Korea Herald published an editorial about the country’s state of youth unemployment.

According to the editorial, although statistical studies seem to show that Korea’s labor market conditions are improving (the country’s overall unemployment rate has decreased by 0.1 percentage point to 2.7 percent), the unemployment rate for those aged from 15 to 29 increased by 0.8 percentage points from a year earlier, hitting 7.5 percent in November.

The total number of young people who are unemployed could very well be higher as official unemployment figures do not count discouraged workers.

Ironically, this increase in the number of unemployed young people is contrasted by the fact that many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) suffer from a chronic shortage of workers.


To be sure, there are certainly structural problems in the Korean economy that has exacerbated Korea’s high level of youth unemployment. One of the main culprits behind it is the supply-demand mismatch in the labor market. In other words, there are far too many young people who are far too highly educated for jobs that do not exist for them.

Case in point, about 33.2 percent of Korea’s youth were college-educated in 1990. In 2008, 83.8 percent of Korea’s youth were college-educated.

Compounding the issue is the increasing rate of the minimum wage, which makes employers less likely to employ young people with little to no experience and prefer those who are older with previous work experience, and unionization that protects older workers from having to compete for their jobs with younger aspirants.

There are certainly things that the government can do to alleviate the youth unemployment rate such as reversing course on its minimum wage policy and making it easier for employers to fire striking workers. Furthermore, the government can try to adopt and tinker with other successful policies such as Germany’s apprenticeship system, which helps to ease young people’s entry into the job market by lowering business’ costs for employing them, while successfully avoiding the currently practiced internship system, which essentially compels younger people to perform menial tasks that usually have little to do with the actual jobs that they are interning for while usually not getting paid in the name of gaining (dubious) experience.

However, those are only attempts at trying to solve the problem’s symptoms rather than its causes.


One of the underlying roots that plague Korean society, not unlike other countries with advanced economies, is that there is a dangerous disconnect between the demand for blue-collar work, the kind of work that does not necessarily require a college degree, and the number of people who are willing to fill these positions.  This is the result of the Korean people’s tendency to demonize such kinds of work.

The fact of the matter is that, as mentioned earlier, SMEs do suffer from a chronic shortage of workers, particularly for blue-collar jobs. Due to the kinds of higher education that people prefer (with a tendency to prefer service-based jobs in chaebol companies) and their avoidance of other skill sets, such as welding or farming, this near nation-wide behavior has resulted in a skill gap; meaning that there are jobs that cannot be filled by Koreans.

It is a self-inflicted injury. In their desire to save face or conform to society’s collectively held image of what a successful person ought to look like, parents either force and/or socialize their children into going to college. And when they do go to college, they usually do so by taking out student loans that these future graduates might not be able to repay when/if they fail to get the jobs that they were promised but turned out did not actually exist. And this is the problem.

This is certainly not to say that it is undesirable to have an educated youth. It is certainly preferable to have an educated population to one that isn’t. However, when the motivation behind the desire to get a college education is in order to be eligible for “better” jobs rather than simply to attain higher education, then there is a problem.

In the field of economics, there is a type of good that is known as a Giffen good. The law of demand states that when the price of a good increases, the demand for the good then correspondingly decreases as people begin to seek other alternatives or substitutes. A Giffen good is a good that defies the law of demand because it is a type of good whose demand continuously increases even when the price of the good continuously increases. Economists have long argued with one another over the question of whether or not Giffen goods actually exist. Though higher education does not meet the exact requirements of a Giffen good, it does appear to be the closest thing to a Giffen good out there in the market.

The existence of a Giffen good can only come through cultural norms. There are, indeed, plenty of alternatives to a typical college education (when it is being used as a diploma machine in order to be used as resumes for jobs). One can pursue a technical education, or as mentioned earlier, seek apprenticeships. Furthermore, considering the fact that most jobs provide on-the-job training to their new employees and the fact that only a small fraction of college graduates ever get to work in a field that is related to their major, and that most college graduates (for one reason or another) cannot seem to find work nowadays, it would appear that a college education is a bane rather than a boon for young people. All of these reasons suggest that, if this were a normal market, the demand for college education ought to fall, and fall drastically. However, there is no visible sign to suggest that that is about to happen any time soon.

In other words, this Giffen good, this non-dissipating demand for higher education, is an aberration.

That parents wish to see their children live better lives than the ones that they had is certainly an understandable sentiment. In fact, it could be argued that not wishing for that would a reprehensible violation of one of the fundamental laws of nature. However, parents, as well as the rest of society, are failing future generations by imposing on them a myth – the myth that a college education guarantees “better” jobs.

As long as this myth remains unchallenged, neither Korea nor any other country will be able to rid itself of the problem of high levels of youth unemployment or the ever-increasing number of discouraged young workers.

I hope they are ready to realize that they put themselves in serious debt to be overqualified for jobs that don't exist.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Quick Promotion for Hollaback! Korea

Usually, I'm just another vain blogger who thinks that projecting his opinions to the rest of the world is somehow a good idea.

But this time, I want to promote an organization that I think is amazing and has the potential to become great.  That organization's name is Hollaback! Korea.  It is an organization that is dedicated to helping to end street harassment (the definition can be found here).  It is an organization that properly understands that street harassment, like any other kind of sexual harassment, is based on one motivation - to intimidate.  Sexual predators, regardless of who they are or where they are from, want their victims cowering because that is how they feel powerful.

Hollaback! Korea is an organization that fights this scourge.  I encourage everyone to find out more about it.