Observations on South Korea

South Korea’s success has been deep but not wide. Almost half of its population lives, works and competes in Seoul. Its occupational structure is also narrow. The number of professions in South Korea is only two-thirds of the number in Japan and only 38% of that in America. This striking statistic is not lost on the South Korean government (few are). It has appointed a task force to foster 500 promising occupations, such as veterinary nurse, chiropractor and private detective.

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, once pointed out that America has more than 3,000 halls of fame, honouring everyone from sportsmen to accountants. If people cannot reach the top of one ladder, they climb a different one. In South Korea, by contrast, people share a common definition of success. Everyone is clambering up the same set of rungs, aspiring to the same prizes and fearing similar failures. Those who say they are trying for something else are not quite believed. “People would rather be the tail of a dragon than the head of a snake,” as one journalist put it.

The entire article is interesting, from The Economist.


I am reminded of the narrow definition of success in Asian American communities in the United States.

Apt observation. Mind that we can say, under unpromising situations, that both SKoreans and AsianAms *are* successful populations at least, as opposed to unsuccessful like comparable populations.

OTOH there is a Chinese saying, stating the opposite: "Rather be the head of the chicken, than the tail of the ox".

What is the definition of success in the Asian American community? There are lots of academic achievers and doctors, scientists and engineers, but also lots of entrepreneurs and retail shops. Is a successful Asian restaurateur in America, for instance, considered low status within their community?

Nope, They are high status because they are often first generation immigrants striving to give their kids the chance to become doctors, engineers, etc... that is they are the model of self-sacrificing parents in the Confucian tradition.

Indians and flips are Confucian?

On the other hand Westerners may have an overly broad understanding of success. There are whole hordes of white people in Williamsburg and Wicker Park who self-actualize based on how good their taste in music is or how ironic their sarcasm is. Needless to say being "good" in these endeavors comes with a lot less effort, struggle and frustration than actually building, creating or even just plain being a reliable member of a larger organization. Add too many ladders and young people won't even bother to try climbing the harder ones.

Low status occupations that are in demand should attract more people and status with higher wages, mitigating the problem South Korea is having. However, maybe there is simply not much demand for many of the services that are offered in the United States and other countries. This would explain why chiropractors and private detectives aren't high status occupations.

Not enough cheating husbands and large-breasted women.

Funny, given the amount of plastic surgery in that country.

If they don't have chiropractors, is it because they already have a good number of acupuncturists and eastern medicine "experts"?

I think it more has to do with being an export powerhouse. The variety of demands among domestic Korean consumers is probably just as wide as in America. But foreign exports typically results in countries specializing more deeply in fewer endeavors. Since a higher proportion of Korean production is exports relative to domestic consumption, overall demand is more specific.

I think a large part of it is that there are only a few segments of the Korean economy that are internationally competitive -- electronics, some types of heavy industry, and pop music / soap operas. The economic rewards are, as a result, heavily concentrated in those areas, so, all things being equal, young people are aiming in (or are aimed in) those directions.

The other issue is that among the elite of South Korea, if you want kind of good or service that is only available domestically in an inferior form, it's super easy to hop over to Japan or Hong Kong, or even to the United States, to get it.

So basically one big silicon valley (switch social media/tesla tech for mass-market consumer hardware/shipbuilding).

Incidentally I heard the same thing about "one single ladder of success" from Korean college students visiting the US on a tour, in 2009.

Specialization. Hoid of it?

I have always thought that one of the unique features of the U.S. is that everybody gets a chance to feel important. I muse that there must be an annual national conference of janitors some where. Now you are making me wonder if this is a Janitors' Hall of Fame.

likely related to American exceptionalism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_exceptionalism

the conditions described, if accurately described, would make soap operas, popular songs, theater, and other widespread forms of art much much closer to the personal experience of the viewers (than is the case in the most of the U.S.). Must be nice to be a Korean entertainer.

As far as impressiveness, I'll take the Hyundai shipyards in Pusan any day over the silly gadget biz of Seoul.

Soon to be closed under the pressure of low cost Chinese shipyards. Just like the Brooklyn Naval Yards were turned into apartments by the Japanese and Koreans.

That tis [sic] true.

It partly goes back to the Confucian idea ("Everything else is inferior; only study is superior.") that high status professions are defined by how much study is the prerequisite. The exact opposite of the "but when are we ever going to use that???" attitude.

Tyler is a shoo-in for the Falls Church Econo-Food-Blogger Hall of Fame.

Factors to consider: the larger the population, the more diverse the jobs? Against this, Pakistan has 170m and Indonesia over 200m, yet I bet neither is very diverse. I noticed America is also very homogenous, except for a few eccentric cities like San Francisco, Baltimore, parts of NYC, etc. Witness Arizona, DC, LA (places I've lived in) etc. Same same. Overseas it's also the same--Thailand and the Philippines for example are homogenous, with cities cut from the same template, but PH is more diverse due to the fact they have three major languages. India, Switzerland and Belgium would also fit this diverse template. Greece is homogeneous to a degree--the islands being different but the same, mountain towns, etc. Come to think of it, nearly every country is like this: homogeneous, except when they are not. I think Keynesian economics attempts to preserve this homogeneity (i.e., Keynesian economics attempts to maintain the status quo, with its emphasis on keeping demand the same as before), while Austrian economics attempts to disrupt things ("creative destruction"; Austrian: think of it as analogous to the Germanic peoples starting all those world wars). Oops, flamebait slipped in. Just to see if you read this far.

You Americans are weak and corrupt, to actually think that such worthless occupations as janitors and social workers hold any decency or honour. We proud and strong Asians know and value that which is truly of worth, that the true measure of a man is his income and wealth, and that the (primary and traditional) way to achieve such is to study hard and enter into a honourable (high-earning) occupation.

Even now, our young are being corrupted and tainted by the false ideas of the Americans, into wanting to do design, computer animation or worse yet, the arts. I worry about this.

[Not a South Korean. A Singaporean, ultra-right wing faction]

Absurd trolling. Why do you use John Smith if you are from Singapore? It must be because you love and respect the white man. The British trained you well, and you know your place.

I prefer my privacy and hence uses an alias. John Smith is apparently the most common English name. I understand that you may lack the intellect to come to this conclusion, even as a possibility, but I am happy to enlighten you.

And no, it is not trolling when I readily admit upfront that I am ultra-right wing.

Good one brudder, I don't think they get it. I wish we didn't look down so much on janitors, cleaners, and other key but low status professions.

Just a while ago, I saw a man nonchalantly throw a plastic bag with an empty bottle onto a nearby grass patch when a rubbish bin is only ten meters away. When confronted with his act of littering, he gave the bo-chup look perfected by local ah bengs and said, 'none of your business'. I ended up throwing that bag myself.

Is this what our character education has become ? Forget about OCIP, CIP, cleaning up beaches and parks. We can implement a programme for JC/poly/ITE students to work during the holidays as cleaners, garbage collectors, road sweepers for an allowance. Maybe they'll have more respect for these workers and understand the importance of civic duty.

As an additional bonus, I can just hear the shrieks of dismay from elitist parents who cannot bear the thought of their precious children doing such loathsome jobs... which in turn is a sad indictment of our Singaporean society.

May I know what is your educational qualification, and what major was it in?

Chemistry Hons from NUS, plus MPP from the local public policy school named after the illustrious founder of modern Sg.

Suffice to say I'm a bit of an outlier.

A right winger in the Sg context could mean many different things:
hardline opponent of immigration?
staunch nationalist?
steadfast supporter of the fascist elitist ruling party?
Fervent religious fundamentalist and social conservative?

Note the categories don;t have to be mutually exclusive, so I guess you could be a combination of all of the above, nevermind some of the glaring contradictions. :)

Right wing in the typical normal sense of the word.

To be more specific for me though, conservative in terms of the economic aspects, but liberal in the social aspects.

I am surprised though that as a holder of MPP, you leap to such sweeping and ill-advised policy recommendations and hold such extreme (in the sense that it is non-mainstream) views of our society. Most Singaporeans only mouth the slogans of equality, few if any would hold these thoughts sincere. This is assuming you are sincere, of course.

If the korean nicknames Jaedong and Bomber don't ring a bell you're not so much informed about global youth culture. They are known all over the world, have climbed an unusual ladder, are at the top of it, and financially successful, even at a young age.

That's like saying if you can't name any of the ponies on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, then you're not informed about global youth culture. As if that is something one should want to be informed about anyway! See Doug's comment above at 10:38PM.

Succeeding internationally as an entertainer is not exactly an unusual type of success for a Korean. Hallyu is built on that kind of thing and there's a massive industry supporting it. It's about as unusual as trying to climb the corporate ladder to the top, in Korea -- thousands try, few succeed.

Re: fearing similar failures

Although it is similar, I wouldn't really say it's a narrow definition of success at work, so much as across East Asia, although self status and success is very psychologically important, that the cultural focus is on getting better at your weak points, improving when you fail and avoiding failure than it is on embracing your successes and chasing after and seeking situations where your strengths can shine.

Culturally and emotionally, approaching positive outcomes is less rewarding than avoiding negative outcomes. "Prevention focus" more than "promotion focus" culture.

Which results in a narrow spread as everyone tries to skill up and be at least a reasonable standard at everything deemed fairly important, rather than people going and doing "weird" activities to find something they are good at. In East Asia, when one realizes oneself is worse than friend at one thing, and better at another, the focus is on improving at what they are bad at until they are as good at what they are good at. While the American (and probably even European) focus would by contrast be on embracing what they are good at and training further on it, to get more of those good feelings of success.

Obviously this is going to be more at work when it comes to skills that are learn-able and plastic rather than fairly hard wired and innate.

Of course, avoiding failure doesn't mean being mediocre or average (which we are so helpfully informed, is over), as the cultural standards for what is "failure" can be far above the average, e.g. the 90% on the test is failure, mentality reported by the very success driven Asian Americans. But at whatever threshold that failure is banished, there is likely to be a cultural tendency to sit at it quite happily.

Don't you just love the way the pundits at the "Economist" give so freely of their advice on HOW others should choose to run their lives?


Still, if you're looking to diversify professions, there's something to be said for the infinite variety of flimflam, bunko, and humbug.

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