BEIJING – The first big story I covered as a young correspondent in South Korea was a corruption scandal. Two former presidents were found guilty of, among other things, amassing fortunes with payoffs from the country’s major business groups, called chaebols. That was 1996.
So it’s dismaying to write — 20 years later, as a somewhat older correspondent — about yet another South Korean presidential scandal. Embattled President Park Geun-hye left her fate in the hands of parliament on Tuesday, after hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets to call for her resignation. A close confidant of Park allegedly abused her relationship with the president to extract tens of millions from the country’s chaebols and businessmen. Prosecutors claim that Park herself may have been an accomplice in the scheme.
The more things change in Korean politics, the more they apparently don’t. The same can’t be said of Korea’s society and economy, however. That helps explain the ferocity of public outrage against Park (whose approval ratings have dipped to an infinitesimal 4 percent) — and should be a warning to whoever succeeds her.
Today’s South Korea is a radically different country than the one I encountered two decades ago. Back then, Seoul was a surprisingly provincial place for the capital of an economy that relied so much on the outside world. Getting around without speaking Korean was nearly impossible. Foreign cuisine was limited, for the most part, to pricey international hotels or fast-food joints. Foreign brands were almost as scarce. People would swear at me if I walked down the street with a Korean woman. Good luck getting a good cup of coffee.
Despite its dependence on exports, the economy was just as parochial. Protected at home, the chaebols churned out cheap, uncompetitive stuff that ended up on the bottom shelves of U.S. retailers. Korean brands were a laughingstock. Young college grads automatically joined the government or chaebol bureaucracies. There were well-founded concerns that the country was about to get chased down from behind by a rising China.
When I visit Seoul today, the city is in many ways unrecognizable. South Korea has become one of the world’s most connected countries. Getting ahead depends on foreign education, foreign experience and foreign-language skills. Restaurants dish out Indian curries and Mexican tacos. You can get a great cup of coffee just about anywhere.
And the economy has advanced precisely because of that new diversity of ideas and influences. By enhancing creativity and innovation, greater openness has helped the chaebols develop proud brand names and top-shelf products. A startup culture has emerged in the shadow of those sprawling conglomerates. Korean pop culture has developed a global appeal. Rather than being steamrolled by China, Korean businesses from autos to cosmetics have acquired the market savvy to profit from its economic growth.
When Park was elected president in 2012 — the first female leader in a country where women are rarely offered positions of leadership — she seemed a potent symbol of all this progress. Yet in power, she’s acted as a retrograde force. Perhaps she remains too influenced by her father, who reigned as dictator for 18 years. Park has faced criticism for her government’s attempts to stifle dissent and public protest, including dismantling an opposition party, suing and indicting journalists and jailing a prominent labor leader. One publication recently asked: “Is South Korea regressing into a dictatorship?”
What’s happening right now on the streets of Seoul goes well beyond the particulars of Park’s alleged misdeeds. It’s a clash between a South Korean society moving forward and a South Korean government creeping backward. Younger Koreans rightfully see their country as something of a model for the emerging world. It is one of a tiny handful of developing nations that managed the difficult leap into the ranks of advanced economies. After decades of struggle, Koreans brought down dictators and gained the political and civil liberties to match their economic gains. They are back out on the street today to preserve what they’ve won and, even more, to ensure their political leaders share their values and determination.
Who wins the struggle is critical for the country’s future. With Chinese companies advancing in technology and bursting onto the world stage, South Korea needs more than just Hyundai, Samsung and LG to build global brands. With an aging population and economy in need of more talent, the still-low glass ceiling for women has to be smashed. A pressure-cooker education system that many families simply flee must be reformed to better prepare the workers of tomorrow. The chaebols still wield too much power, and still suffer from outdated corporate governance that damages their competitiveness and reputation.
Park hasn’t proved up to the challenge. Though she’s tried helping women in the workforce, her programs haven’t gone far enough. Instead of cracking down on chaebol abuses, Park has pardoned their leaders of their financial crimes.
Koreans have worked hard to build a thriving democracy out of dictatorship and a vibrant economy out of poverty. They deserve a government that helps them achieve even more.
Michael Schuman is a journalist based in Beijing and author of “Confucius: And the World He Created.”