The recent public furore over the South Korean nut rage incident culminated in the arrest of Heather Cho, daughter of Korean Air’s chairman and a former executive at the airline. She has been charged with breaches of an aviation safety law linked to her outburst over the way she was served nuts on the plane.
Her father, the head of one of South Korea’s family-run conglomerates or chaebols, apologised for what he termed as his daughter’s “foolish act”.
The event struck a deep chord among Koreans, being symptomatic of popular anger at the authoritarian antics of the elite in a society challenged by economic polarisation and disparities.
South Korea – the world’s 13th largest economy – remains a stellar example of transformation from a developing to a developed country in just a few decades.
Yet, there is a downside to its transformation story. The middle class has shrunk from 75.4 per cent of the population in 1990 to 67.5 per cent in 2010.
Since 2000, there has been a rapid fall in industrial employment in favour of the service sector. While women are predicted to outnumber men this year, the pay gap in favour of men is the highest among OECD countries. Household debt is as high as 164 per cent of disposable income, making life tough for ordinary Koreans. Poverty among the elderly is 49 per cent, and the suicide rate of the elderly tops the OECD ranking.
As chaebols continue to exercise a firm grip on industry and the service sector, the SMEs struggle to survive and grow.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, South Korea’s President Park Geun Hye noted that the “Washington Consensus”, a doctrine that emphasises the trickle-down effect of economic growth, no longer enjoys universal sway. The government now supports job creation and working mothers so that the fruits of growth can be enjoyed by broader sections of society, while the competition authority is working to create a level playing field for businesses.
Although South Korea is not immune to dynastic politics, President Park was directly elected to a five-year term with no possibility of re-election, resulting in regular leadership succession.
The economic and political transitions have led to profound changes in Korean society. The growing popularity of Korean movies and music worldwide has added to its soft power.
South Korea’s rising regional clout and global standing calls for a social repositioning, consistent with the image and clout it is vying for on the world stage.
The nut rage case highlights the disparities in Korean society, as family-run chaebols are seen as the diametric opposite to the meritocratic ideal preferred by ordinary Koreans. Following the incident, the Korea Herald newspaper castigated the “feudal” management practices of chaebols.
In April 2013, a Posco Energy executive assaulted an air stewardess for serving him food he did not like; in September that year, the CEO of a renowned outdoor clothing company stirred up controversy when he hit an airline employee over boarding issues. The publicity and outrage surrounding such incidents reflect a civil society that is more vocal over blatant wrongs, even of the elites who reign in the commanding heights.
But at the same time, Korea still suffers from a culture that seems to hardwire in its young an almost unquestioning submission to authority.
South Korea’s economic success story must be followed by a reboot in its socio-economic paradigm. It needs to be responsive to the egalitarian expectations of society so that ordinary citizens can partake in its transition towards not only a 21st-century economy that is creative and dynamic, but also a modern society that is enlightened and inclusive.
The writer, Mr. Syed Munir Khasru is Chairman of a Bangladesh based international think tank – the Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG).