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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Which model for Korea tomorrow?

(Translation of an article I recently published - in French - on the Korean paradox: "Quel modele pour la Coree demain?" - Asialyst - 20151001)

Which model for Korea tomorrow?

Seventy years after its liberation, Korea seems at the same time more present than ever on the global stage, and full of doubts. This nation has countless times proved its capacity to bounce back and to surprise, but today does it have to reinvent itself?

Diplomacy: can yesterday's weakest link become tomorrow's keystone?

With such neighbors as China, Russia, and Japan, plus an unruly (to say the least) brother up North, South Korea would have had a tough time surviving without the support of the United States. Yet as much as her spectacular economic boom (now a major contributor to world institutions, then at the other end of the charity chain), her opening to China helped her become a key diplomatic power: a UN secretary general, the first G20 host in Asia, and even for a moment the quasi-pivot to the G2, thanks to the good fit between Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping..., and Shinzo Abe's irresistible urge to undo the democratic progresses of postwar Japan.

While waiting for an elusive reunification that would help her claim yet another dimension, Korea could benefit from perfecting her diplomatic distinctiveness. But this delicate exercise is under a double threat: between their increasing economic dependence to China, and the unconditional support of the USA to Abe's restoration of militarism in Japan, Koreans fear they might end up in the sphere of influence of the former, as hinted by Asan Institute polls.

Politics: can the democracy in the South overcome its own divisions?

If South Korea put an end to dictatorship over a quarter of a century ago, presidencies remain limited to one single term, which contributes to an unbalance of powers; between presidents gone lame duck as soon as they're elected, lawmakers plagued by scandales, and not so independent justice and media, two powers emerge: the almighty familial conglomerates (chaebol), and netizens very motivated to defend democracy, but trusting only the web... which sometimes means spinning the wildest rumor or hoax.

Adding to the traditional geographic divisions (particularly those opposing the conservative South East to the progressive South West), deep generational gaps appear between left-leaning youth and right-leaning seniors. The political debate is at best absent, at worst very contentious or polluted by extreme minorities from both sides (ultraconservatives on one, supporters of the North Korean regime on the other).

Even if they are divided, South Koreans long for reconciliation, and even reunification, a prospect as problematic as ever, but again wished by a majority. The pure, joyful communion of the 2002 World Cup seems far away, and to this day, no one has managed to reunite the South by leveraging this positive energy.

The democratically elected daughter of a dictator, Park Geun-hye had the unique opportunity to set up a new deal and to show the example across the region, but she didn't chose the path of truth and reconciliation. Meanwhile, the opposition is stuck in the quagmire of its own contradictions, and under the influence of leaders trained to resist dictatorship, feels more comfort in organizing permanent demonstrations that in building a sustainable government platform.

As her neighbors opt for ever harder lines (Xi, Putin, Abe, Kim), Korea must avoid the return of ideology, the temptation of populism, and above all the trap of nationalism fueled by Japan's unleashed revisionists.

Economy: can the XXth century's « best follower » become a « leader » in the XXIth?

From state dirigisme to ultra-capitalism, the country went from one extreme to another without reforming its main structural hurdles: its hyper-competitive education system chain produces top performers, but destroys innovators and creative rule changers; its chaebol are unable to share value or to evolve in open ecosystems, and suck up the potential for SMEs and start-ups; and social dialogue is at a standstill (like France, Korea is blocked because she bought trade unions for social peace). Besides, even as it multiplies FTAs across the World, the nation knows how to deter major international players who want to succeed in its service sectors - after Walmart and Carrefour, Tesco just called it quits.

Avis' old « we try harder » campaign against Hertz remains a textbook marketing case where #2 outdoes itself to become #1, but once at the top struggles to take on true leadership. For Korea, who built her success by always doing better than others, the toughest part is now to make her own way. If she perfectly manages to do it in certain markets such as cosmetics, she has trouble in others, like a Samsung failing to succeed beyond hardware, in software and international platforms - what Apple did with iTunes and iOS. Korea doesn't always seem to leverage as well as she should her formidable window of opportunity vis-a-vis China, who uses her as a model while catching up in the technological race.

If Korea is less exposed to speculators since she's sitting on record currency reserves, her dependence on exports persists, her middle class suffer, her growth slows down, and her short-term stimulus policies further weaken her: regarding housing, protecting constructors comes before urban planning common sense and long-term needs, and regarding household consumption, debt levels break records among OECD members

With ever sinking birth rates, some Koreans fear a Japan-style 'lost decade'. Even their legendary capacity to bounce back seems dulled, like during these never ending post-Sewol doldrums. To face the challenges of this young millenium, the Korean model must evolve, and preferably without more crises. 

The wind of change and innovation seems to be - timidly - starting to blow. The best students are not anymore following the golden path of the day (engineering, law,...), but making their own combo program by picking from the different faculties of their universities. And when they graduate, they are not anymore rushing to guaranteed chaebol careers, but ready to take risks in start-ups. If the arrival of Google Campus and other foreign players and VCs contribute to a new techno bubble, it also opened new horizons to entrepreneurs in a market previously locked by local conglomerates.

Society: can Koreans rediscover the joys of community in times of diversity?

So today, leaving the system of accepting failure is not a taboo anymore. A little bit like after the IMF Crisis of 1997-98, which came as a wake up call after a century plagued by colonization, war, and the sacrifices of development: all of a sudden, life was about more than fighting for surviving or winning more, and Korea started gearing up for leisure, family life, and culture. Seoul quickly became that city more open to its citizens and to the World, at long last a popular tourist destination.

But infrastructures can't bring all answers to the challenges of today and tomorrow. You can't pretend you can tackle upcoming demographic shocks when you boast such suicide or youth unemployment rates, when you're struggling to get mixed children accepted, when you let three hundred kids drown, or a teenager join ISIS...

Humans are back at the center of the society, and the priority goes to sharing a better life in existing living environments: instead of erasing a whole neighborhood to build a New Town, authorities involve populations in micro urban regeneration projects, and instead of adding lifesavers to Suicide Bridge, they try to revive inter-generational dialogue. Korea invests massively in human resources and pedagogy to prepare for the demographic boom of multicultural families, and for the community to give its best in times of diversity.

This can't happen overnight in a country that already struggles to promote its cultural diversity beyond extremes (e.g. gugak vs k-pop), but the political will is there, and shared across the aisle.


Korea is neither booming nor declining, but in transit between a model on its last legs and new, more agile dynamics. She can make it faster than her neighbors, and her small size represents as much an asset as a handicap. She can always count on her formidable ability to evolve, digest, try, customize, 'bibimize', as well as on the intensity she gives to everything she dares, for worse or better.

Stephane MOT 2015

Seoul Village 2015
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