Why are so Many Koreans Opposed to Free Trade Agreements?

We keep reading about the bizarre politics swirling around the ratification of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. Last week, I suggested that it all came down to an alienated public taking out its rage on the Grand National Party and, by extension, the FTA.

But there is more.

The often irrational opposition to the FTA is largely due to frustration of young people and their families over the lack of adequate employment opportunities for college graduates, who make up over 80 percent of the country’s younger population.

As I wrote last week, many people blame the ruling conservatives, the Grand National Party, for being more concerned about lining the pockets of their cronies and themselves than addressing the fundamental needs of the electorate when it comes to job creation.

While there is considerable corruption within the GNP, the problem is not significantly better or worse than when its opposition had been in power. And corruption, as destructive as it may be, is more of a red herring than the real cause for the current political problems and resulting unrest.

One may be tempted to blame the Ministry of Employment and Labor, but the problem is, at least superficially, the result of policies and programs coming out of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. To its credit, the Education Ministry is attempting, if belatedly, to address the imbalance of overly educated young Koreans by attempting to set up a meister program patterned after Germany’s trade schools.

The likely limitations of a Korean trade school program is that graduates will be stigmatized as being inferior to university graduates – even if many meister graduates later study in the evenings and complete their college educations.

Perhaps the Education Ministry will be able to better promote the virtues of the meister program and trade school graduates’ future contributions to society. But I can tell you, even if the government and schools manage to sell the meister program to some, most families will refuse to buy into the notion.
One can say that Korea, as the most Confucian of societies, wants as many of its children to get as good of an education as possible. That would be a good thing, but, in reality, many if not most Korean families could not care less about the actual quality of education. The purpose of a respected college degree is to get a good job that brings wealth, or in the very least, prestige, which may eventually lead to wealth.

What makes the situation almost pathetic is that many Korean families are not blatantly materialistic, but they constantly feel social pressure that if their children falter in educational advancement then the entire family will be left behind.

And ultimately, that is what is behind the opposition to the FTA. Widespread anxiety, in some cases bordering on quiet panic, is fomenting among families out of fear that they are being left behind as their college-educated children find themselves unable to find the expected career opportunities. At the same time, a small minority of recent college graduates, who get those few, treasured white-collar jobs, unintentionally rub society’s disparities in the faces of the majority.

Perhaps all of this is the result of a nation that has grown economically too fast. In the past, only a small percentage of families could send their brightest offspring to universities. That group made up a ruling oligarchy. Today, the masses have been suckered into believing that they have the same opportunities for their children via a college education.

The truth is that only the very brightest students are admitted to the very few universities that are seriously considered by prestigious employers. And only certain disciplines at the top universities have high, immediate post-graduate employment rates.

In short, many families feel they have been sold a bill of goods by a society that is represented by the government. Right now, the GNP is taking the hits and, by extension, so is the FTA. But when the GNP is replaced by another party, as is almost certain to happen 13 months from now, the overall situation will not improve. It can’t improve by a change in government. The problem is a social or spiritual one, which no political party can easily fix.

Where all of this is going is virtually impossible to predict, but ultimately, most of the ongoing and future political turmoil will continue to stem from desperate, overly competitive families that make up Korean society.

It is only human nature for the disadvantaged and frustrated to look for enemies and scapegoats. Some years ago, during another time of political turmoil, America’s comic strip cartoonist, Walt Kelly, had one of his characters famously declare, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

Because of my inadequate Korean-language abilities, I have yet to discover a well-regarded Korean who has made a similar public observation. If such a person exists, he or she needs to be loudly and repeatedly quoted. If such an observation has yet to have been made in Korea, it is overdue for someone of note to stand up and make a similar declaration.

Otherwise, I cannot see how this overly competitive society will have a chance to heal itself.

by Tom Coyner.  Senior Advisor to IPG.

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