Is South Korea a ′nation in trouble′? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 07.10.2016
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Is South Korea a 'nation in trouble'?

The headlines in South Korea's newspapers have been largely negative in recent months, dominated by scandal, political impasse and social unrest. But some say it shows the nation is evolving into a mature society.

The headline for The Korea Herald's editorial column on Monday, October 3, was blunt and unequivocal: "Nation in trouble." And, for once, the threat to South Korean society was identified as being internal, rather than the one posed by its belligerent and unpredictable neighbor to the north.

The respected publication identified a "lack of efficient and trusted leadership" as the prime reason for the "current dismal state of the nation," pointing to the paralysis in the National Assembly since the opposition passed a vote of no-confidence in Kim Jae-soo, the agriculture minister, in early September.

The intervening days have seen hunger strikes by politicians, boycotts of parliamentary sessions and increasingly bitter accusations hurled by both sides.

Deep-seated malaise

But the malaise goes deeper than that, the Herald insists, citing intermittent strikes by the union of Hyundai Motor - which dragged down the nation's overall car production by more than 12 percent in August - and the first walk-out by railway and subway workers in South Korea in 22 years.

Elsewhere, Samsung Electronics has been in the headlines for a new generation of mobile phones with an alarming propensity for catching fire as well as reports of exploding washing machines, while Hanjin Shipping Co., the seventh largest maritime transport company in the world, is struggling under a debt estimated at six trillion won ($5.37 billion) and went into receivership in September.

Meanwhile, the management of the massive Lotte Corp. conglomerate have been caught up in allegations of scandal that prompted the vice chairman, Lee In-won, to commit suicide in August, shortly before he was to be interviewed by investigators looking into suggestions that the company operated a slush fund and carried out breach of trust involving transactions between the group's companies.

All three companies have previously been held up as examples of the South Korean economic miracle, but have suddenly been brought down to earth with a bump.

Structural issues

The unrest in politics, business and industry has been mirrored by growing dissatisfaction among the public, believes Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University.

"There have been some high profile problems at Hanjin, Lotte and Samsung, but a lot of the larger problems are more structural in nature and relate to the social expectations of this generation after the era of rapid economic growth in South Korea," Pinkston told DW.

"Globally we are obviously seeing issues relating to slower economic growth, but in South Korea that translates directly to fears over employment and job security," he said. "Even people with good jobs and salaries are now anxious about the security of their position, their retirement and the education of their children.

"You can really sense that lack of peace of mind here in Korea now," he added.

"There's a sense of angst or anxiety, which is a new phenomenon for these generations because the country is still a developed nation, with relatively high income levels, technological skills and industrialization levels. But the paradox is that people are less happy and feel less safe."

President Park 'unlucky'

With businesses teetering, the government could have served as the rock for society to hold fast to, but more than one year ahead of presidential elections, the incumbent, Park Geun-hye, is increasingly looking like a lame-duck leader.

"She may be deserving of a degree of criticism of her leadership, but she has been unlucky in some ways," insists Pinkston. Some of her appointments turned out to be ill-judged - and therefore short-lived - but the sinking of the ferry Sewol in April 2014, with the deaths of 304 people, caused chaos in the administration.

In addition, defeat in the election earlier this year effectively left Park unable to force through the structural reforms that the economy undoubtedly needs, while there has also been factional in-fighting between groups within the ruling Saenuri Party.

"For several months, stuff has simply not been done," Pinkston said. "The assembly is split, the opposition is making life as hard as possible for Park and everyone is looking to the presidential election in December of next year - which is a long way off," he noted, adding: "I don't think we can expect any meaningful initiatives or policies and we will instead get a gradual malaise spreading through society."

Yet, some in South Korea prefer to see the upside of the problems that the nation is presently going through.

'Healthy' debate

Rah Jong-yil, a former South Korean ambassador to the UK and Japan, believes it is "healthy" for the society to be able to debate the issues that it faces. "It is true that there have been all sorts of irregularities affecting the government, business and society, but I believe we need to look at this from a different perspective.

"We regularly hear about these matters being exposed now, but even as recently as 10 years ago we would never have heard of these things as they happened," he said.

"Back then, these scandals and misbehavior - even criminal acts - were considered commonplace and therefore acceptable," he pointed out. "That they are being exposed and debated like this tells me that our country is evolving and making progress. I believe we are on the way to making a better society and this is the process that we need to go through."