[The Korea Herald] Are Koreans overeducated?

By John Power

Koreans are arguably second to none in their zeal for education.

Some 82 percent of Korean high school graduates go on to third level education, more than in any other OECD country. There are more than 400 colleges and universities and 70,000 second-level private academies called “hagwon” around the country, while Korean high school students consistently outperform their international peers in reading and math. But with youth unemployment a prominent policy issue and students facing sometimes unbearable pressure to perform, many are questioning the nation’s feverish devotion to academic study.

“It is undesirable for there to be so many university graduates,” Ryu Ji-seong of the Samsung Economic Research Institute told Voice. “Currently, only 60 percent of university graduates are employed. There are also few prospects for drastic increases in jobs for university graduates.”

While far lower than in most advanced countries, Korea’s youth unemployment rate, at 6.7 percent, is more than double that of the general population. To tackle this and encourage manual trade-minded students away from university, the government opened 21 Meister schools in 2010, focusing on technical skills in areas such as shipbuilding and semiconductors. Based on the German model of vocational high schools, the government sees the schools as an antidote to a national obsession with admission to the top three “SKY” universities: Korea University, Seoul National University and Yonsei University.

“I think Meister schools are a good idea,” said Ryu. “Businesses need specialized technical skills, and Meister schools can give businesses access to skilled high school graduates.”

But he also believes employers have a big role to play.

“Businesses should be proactive in recruiting high school graduates, and provide graduates with opportunities for career growth and development in line with their abilities and achievements. Secondary schools need to provide students with career guidance and education in line with their aptitude and abilities. Both should play their role to realize a society that values actual talent rather than just degrees.”

But not all sources believe such a high university attendance rate is a negative. Completing tertiary education significantly increases your chances of obtaining a job: In 2009, the average employment rate of third-level graduates in the OECD was 83.6 percent, but just 74.2 percent for those who had not gone beyond high school.

While noting that it was difficult “to say whether this is a plus or negative for graduates since there are many variables,” Chung Ji-eun of the OECD’s education directorate says the signs are that tertiary education has had a positive impact on Korea’s employment rate.

“In 2009, our most recent data, 76.1 percent of tertiary graduates were employed, 69.6 percent were with upper secondary degree and 65.3 percent were with below upper secondary degree,” Chung said.

She added that economic climate is more likely to negatively affect the labor market than any particular university attendance rate, but that education could cushion the blow of economic shocks.

“I think the labor market is rather more dependent on its economic climate. For example, as you might well be aware, Korea experienced financial crisis from 1997. This effect was evidently shown in our data as well, since the employment rate dropped virtually in every education attainment level but this drop was less evident for those with a tertiary education degree.”

But the nation’s educational zeal has faced criticism away from the world of work. According to a report last year, Korean eight graders had the second-poorest social skills of children in 36 countries. The report, released by the Korean Educational Development Institute and the National Youth Policy Institute, laid the blame with a highly regimented education system and excessive hours of study.

“(Students) do not have much time to experience social interaction with their friends and their family and their relatives,” said Hur Tea-kyu, a psychology professor at Korea University.

“That makes people less educated and prepared for social situations and contexts. They only spend most time with very few numbers of close friends and mother and parents, and usually they don’t have sisters or brothers because many families have only one child.”

Hur says social skills are not something that can be taught but that in times past, university had for many been a chance to socialize and form relationships as never before. But those days are gone.

“Getting a job is becoming more difficult and more difficult every year so many university college students are worried about their future as soon as they get in. Ten years, 20 years ago, they had to study hard to get into university. However, after entering university they had a few years to enjoy their life a little bit. Not many students can enjoy their life (now). University is not providing the opportunity to get educated about something they need during their early education.”

For Hur, one of the biggest problems with the education system is its focus on short-term goals.

“They are going live 70 or 80 …And they are thinking about three years after, getting a job and entering university. It is just a small part of their life, it’s not a big part. Actually the big part is not determined yet. We are teaching our children to have only a short-term perspective.”

Others, such as Park Jae-hyun, a research fellow at the Korean Council for University Education, reject any suggestion that Koreans are over-educated, pointing to the role played by education in Korea’s economic and political success.

“It would not be a rational opinion that Koreans are overeducated, because education has a special value and meaning in Korean society. As many people know, education has been a fundamental power for Korea to bring economic as well as political development,” he said.

Park says that this strong focus on education will continue to be vital to the country’s success into the future.

“Human resources have substituted natural resources in Korea with respect to economic growth by providing skill and knowledge which support each industrial area. This trend will be continued in the future as global competition is intense.

“For example, Samsung’s world-class technology such as mobile phones and semiconductors is based on education in the engineering field. Even though a higher university attendance rate is not the only way to ensure the quality of education in Korea, the level of knowledge and culture of Korean people can be enhanced with universal higher education and easy access to colleges.”

Professor of English at Seoul University Lee Byung-min argues that Korea’s educational tradition has acted to breakdown class barriers.

“Of course, education is a strength for youngsters. Why? It is our tradition. Every aspect of our life is closely related to education. Only educated people who have higher degrees or good education or good school graduates with high grades have been always valued in society irrespective of their social ranking,” Park said.

And he emphasizes that the benefits of a college education go far beyond employability.

“Students have opportunities to expand their knowledge and views on issues in their society and the world. They can also learn some skills like cooperation and co-work with others not only in the classroom but also outside of the classroom like other club activities. What I am really emphasizing during college education is that students need to think of some issues in a more critical way by looking at various aspects of that particular phenomenon.”

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[The Korea Herald] Should Korea adopt a welfare state?

By John Power

Social welfare was a defining issue in Korean politics last year. President Lee Myung-bak, having come to power in 2008 with a message of small government, less regulation and lower taxes, was confronted with a slew of opposition proposals for expanding welfare. Then came calls for increased welfare from the unlikely source: Grand National Party, driven by the loss of a Seoul referendum against free school lunches in August and the conservative party’s persistently low approval ratings. At the beginning of a year of major elections, the political momentum is unquestionably favoring greater welfare provision.

“The current discourse about welfare expansion is a big change from the past,” said Ku In-hoe, professor at Seoul National University’s Department of Social Welfare. “Many politicians usually appealed to the public by depending on rapid economic growth rather welfare expansion. I think the changing discourse can affect social welfare policy in the future.”

Ku believes that greater welfare spending is necessary but says Koreans will also have to accept greater flexibility in the labor market and with it greater job insecurity.

“Globalization requires extending labor market flexibility. Some people argue against extending labor market flexibility but I think we have to accept the pressures of the global market. At the same time we have to expand social welfare programs for protecting low-skilled workers in the deteriorating labor market and especially irregular workers and workers in small and medium-sized enterprises.”

Kwon Soon-man, a professor at the School of Public Health at Seoul National University and an expert on welfare policy, believes that Korea in particular needs to increase its investment in public health care.

“We have a national insurance system. It has a universal coverage of the population … but in terms of benefits, simply speaking, the percentage of health care expenditure covered by the public health insurance system is still not universal. About 30 or 40 percent of health care expenditure is borne by individuals from out of pocket,” he told Voice.

Kwon rejects the suggestion of Korea following the example of the mostly private and highly rated health system of the Netherlands, which combines mandatory universal coverage with competing private health insurers.

Illustration by Han Chang-duk

“Still there are a lot of criticisms of that change as well so I don’t think it is a good example. If you have chance to talk with the general public, most people are more or less satisfied with this health insurance program. Of course, no system is perfect, we need some changes, some improvements, but some incremental changes are only needed then,” he said.

For Yang Jae-jin, a professor of public administration at Yonsei University, it is working families who should be the main focus of greater welfare.

“I would expand social welfare programs to support working families. So priority should be given to employment insurance and public child care. Also I would newly introduce so-called ‘parental insurance’ to socialize the cost of paid maternity leave at least for one year. This benefit should be income-related and paid by a parental insurance fund not by employers.”

Historically, South Korea has shunned high welfare spending. Some of the biggest moves toward a welfare state were made under the Kim Dae-Jung administration during and after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. But even with incremental increases since then, South Korea ranked second-lowest in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development for spending on welfare in 2010, accounting for just under 11 percent of GDP. This year’s budget, reflecting the current mood, increased welfare spending by 3.3 trillion won ($2.8 billion), including more money for college scholarships, free school meals and supporting job seekers.

But with the U.S. and much of Europe struggling with debt problems partly caused by heavy social spending, some here such as Kim Chung-ho, head of the Seoul-based Center for Free Enterprise, say that Korea should think twice before committing to the welfare state model.

“Korea is already going down the welfare road,” Kim said. “It is a dangerous road. People will have to be determined to continue working hard despite welfare handouts, also they will have to pay more taxes, which seems to be unlikely. So it could mean a trip down bankrupt road.”

Yang is less concerned that the two main parties’ focus on welfare could lead to competition to outspend each other with public money.

“Learning by doing will be activated in the next general election in 2016. The middle class will no longer support pro-welfare parties if winners of this election in 2012 raise taxes and increase budget deficits.”

While welfare proponents often point out it is the southern European economies that are most severely in debt rather than the likes of high-tax, high-spend Sweden, Kim dismisses the suggestion that the Nordic model could be applied here.

“There are some countries where people evade routinely evade taxes. South Korea is one of those countries that has a huge underground economy, just like in the Southern European countries. So in some countries, people may continue paying high taxes, but based on Korea’s low ranking in the transparency indexes, it seems that Koreans would evade taxes as people in Southern European countries do rather than the way they continue paying them in Scandinavian countries.”

With some level of welfare provision seemingly inevitable, the matter of degree is an important point of contention.

“There is no golden rate,” said Yang “, but I’d say 20 percent of GDP or the average level of OECD countries on the condition that Korean aging becomes a similar level to other OECD nations. Currently, Korea is young and its pension scheme is immature. Given this young population and immature pension schemes, 15 percent of GDP would be appropriate.”

While the Kim says he can understand and even support the targeting of services at the poor, he is vehemently opposed to “universal programs that include middle-class people, college students, rich people” such as Seoul’s free school lunches program.

But in Kim’s view, the most effective thing the government could do to help the poor would be to simply enforce the law of the land.

“That’s the most important thing the government can do. The government needs to stay focused on its basic functions so that honest people can succeed. Unfortunately, we now have a situation where charlatans can make money with lies, half-truths, backroom deals, corruption.”

Kim’s colleague at the CFE, international relations director Casey Lartigue argues that helping the less well-off is a matter of government doing not more, but less.

“Instead of focusing on social welfare spending, why shouldn’t Korea, for example, follow Sweden’s historical model of having free markets, free trade, and its policy of universal school choice?”

In a brief statement to The Korea Herald, the Ministry of Health and Welfare declined to go into specifics on desirable levels of welfare spending or how it would ensure sustainability.

“We are working to find the appropriate level of welfare expenditures that fits our policy environment and circumstances. We are making efforts to make the social security system sustainable considering fiscal conditions,” a spokesman said.

But whether a program or system is fiscally sound or not, Lartigue says the principle off hands-off government is important in itself.

“The right not to have the government take half of your money to set up programs gets ignored in the rush for welfare policies. So focusing on the big government scheme is a distraction from the relationship of the individual with the state. In the age of globalization, it may not make sense to be creating a Swedish model, thereby giving citizens less control over their money and lives,” he said.

[The Korea Herald] Is reunification closer to reality?

The following article, addressing the likelihood of Korean reunification following the death of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il in December 2011, was the first of my 2-year-long “Voice” series of in-depth analysis pieces for The Korea Herald.  

[VOICE] Is reunification closer to reality?

By John Power

As soon as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death was announced, speculation began on the implications for South Korea’s relationship with Pyongyang.

A major question is how Kim’s death and the transition of power to his youngest son Kim Jong-un will affect the long-held goal of Korean reunification. With the elder Kim gone, is a reunified Korean Peninsula closer to becoming a reality?

According to North Korea scholar and Kookmin University professor Andrei Lankov, the answer is yes.

“It makes reunification more likely exactly because it makes instability in North Korea more likely,” he told the Korea Herald.

He sees reunification as early as next year as “not highly probable but possible,” pointing to the tendency of totalitarian regimes to collapse with little or no prior warning. Reunification is “probable” in decades at the earliest, however, as the regime as “little alternative” but to retain a stranglehold over the country.

“If they want to stay in control, if they don’t want to be slaughtered or run to China for exile ― (assuming) the Chinese will accept them, which is a big ‘if’ ― they have no choice but to continue these policies they have continued for the last few decades, which means no Chinese-style reform, no democratization,” he said.

Lankov is adamant that a collapse of the Kim regime is the only way that reunification can come about, as it would be impossible for the North Korean leadership to survive an orderly transition.

“They will immediately be attacked by their own people … and they will be become immediately responsible for what they did. You cannot hide it in the case of a reunified country. You cannot hide your former misdeeds, and they are quite hideous.”

East Asian Economy and Society professor at University of Vienna Rudiger Frank agrees that Kim’s death makes reunification more likely in the short-term. But he considers the key window for an open power struggle and a regime collapse to have passed.

“By stating that he is leader of the party, the state and the army, the propaganda tries to make sure really that everyone in the population thinks that Kim Jong-un is the boss which means the chances for an open power struggle are really diminishing,” Frank said. “But now that he has been announced I think he really must be in the front, either as a figurehead or the real leader.”

Others such as professor Kim Jang-ho of Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies believe that Kim’s death makes reunification neither more nor less likely, but means more of the same.

“Not much change I don’t think. Because he is young and because he has to rely on his father’s people for the time being to maintain his power, I think he will be very conservative in his approach to South Korea,” he said.

Kim says that a key question is how the new leader will deal with potential rivals within the regime.

“After Kim Il-sung passed away, Kim Jong-il relied on his father’s people for about five, six, seven years and then started purging them. I am not sure that will be the same for Kim Jong-in given his age, but until that time I don’t think he will be able to come up with any drastic changes. In terms of reunification, again, I’ll have to say, the status quo.”

Kim Jong-il in power or not, adherence to past policy is what ultimately counts, according to Song Dae-sung, president of Seoul-based national security think thank Sejong Institute.

“If the Kim Jong-un regime insists on their Military First Policy, the death of Kim Jong-il doesn’t make a difference … As long as they insist on the Military First Policy, the quality of North Korean government will never change. This would make reunification with dialogue or reconciliation impossible.”

In a statement to The Korea Herald, the Unification Ministry said that while Kim’s death was “significant,” it would not be the decisive factor in brining about reunification.

“The government is pursuing reunification through efforts to improve North-South Korean relations and achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula. We have pursued this for the past 20 years and will continue to do so … The important thing is how North Korea responds to the efforts of the South Korean government,” said Kim Nam-sik, Assistant Minister at the Unification Policy Office.

But if a regime collapse does not happen, are there other paths to reunification? Frank believes so, but that they are fraught with difficulty.

“In you think about more smooth and gradual types of reunification, ones that are, at least officially, preferred in South Korea, it is hard to imagine how this is going to work. Reunification means shedding part of your national sovereignty, for both parts in an ideal world,” he said.

“And my impression is of course in South Korea the plan is that North Korea gives up everything and the South just keeps doing what it has always been doing and expands into North Korean territory.”

Frank says an ideal and plausible scenario would see North Korea follow a gradual liberalization, allowing it to expand its economy and increase its interaction with the outside world.

“But that means they grow stronger and that means they come into a position when they can ask for conditions when it comes to negotiation about the reunification. Will South Korea accept that? I have my doubts. So, in fact, it is kind of ironic, if North Korea manages to reform and open itself, this will make reunification, at least in the mid-term, unlikely.”

Frank, who grew up in former East Germany, also believes that Kim Jong-un may have less invested in a reunified Korea than his father and grandfather.

“I was 21 years old when Germany got unified and, frankly, I couldn’t care less about it. Why? Because through all of my life I had known two separate German states. So if you ask me whether Kim Jong-un would be as keen on reunification as his father or grandfather, the answer is no, simply because the divided Korea is the world he has known since the very beginning of his life.”

But despite it being official policy here to aim for eventual reunification, many South Koreans, particularly younger ones, remain skeptical of whether the benefits would outweigh the costs. South Korea’s economy is up to 40 times the size of the North’s, and that gap is likely to grow for the foreseeable future.

“At least 10-15 years of struggle is foreseeable after the unification,” according to Kim Yong-soon, a professor at Yonsei University’s Institute of East and West Studies. “As was the case with Germany, even if the unification process goes well, there will be severe political, economic and societal problems to overcome. Needless to say, this will not only test the leadership in Seoul as well as its people, but burden South Korea with a massive bill.”

Sejong Institute’s Song foresees an even longer period of about 20 years before reunification ceases to be a burden on Seoul.

But, despite the vast discrepancy in the two economies, Frank argues that Korean reunification could be a net benefit quicker than it was for Germany.

“Among the tangible benefits are gold, anthracite and magnetite and all the other nice stuff that is up there in the mountains in North Korea that South Korea is lacking and that the Chinese are actually taking out the country at this moment,” he said.

Frank also points to the differences in expectations between North Koreans and East Germans.

“It (East Germany) was an enormously rich country, people had cars, they had houses. Satisfying an East German after reunification meant a huge effort. Most money in the case of German reunification has been spent on social security.”

Unlike Frank, who says appeals to pan-Korean nationalism and economic benefit could allay skepticism here, Lankov says little can be done to persuade reluctant South Koreans of the benefits of reunification.

“You are basically asking how you can persuade people that it’s a good idea to sacrifice their life for the likely prosperity and happiness of the next generation. It can be done but people are not very eager to make such sacrifice.”

For Song, the best hope for changing reluctant attitudes here is for North Korea itself to grow economically.

“It is true that many Korean don’t want reunification soon. However, this view might change if the present quality of the North Korean regime transfers into a normal state.”

[The Korea Herald] Rogue travel agent starts new business under fake name

Part three of the Zenith Travel scam series of articles. — John.

By John Power

A travel agent who had his business registration revoked and was later arrested for scamming customers out of tens of millions of won is continuing to operate under a false name and new company.

Wan-koo “Wystan” Kang, of now-defunct Zenith Travel, currently operates Travel Expert under the alias “Joseph Kim,” advertising primarily to foreign customers.

Kang registered the business with Songpa District Office in Seoul under someone else’s name on Nov. 24, some seven weeks after he was arrested for not providing refunds on dozens of cancelled flights. But a call to Korea Tourism Organization’s Tourism Complaint Center confirmed that Travel Expert does not have the legally required business license to serve foreign customers.

“How can you know if this company is connected with Mr. Kang? We’ll never know … that’s kind of difficult for us (to find out),” said a staffer at the center.

She also confirmed that the person named on the business registration would be responsible for any problems with the company and that she could not locate its insurance information.

Kang quoted prices for flights to a number of destinations in China and took calls from other customers at his new Seoul office in Munjeong-dong when visited by The Korea Herald on Tuesday. A previous victim of Zenith who had met Kang later arranged to meet “Joseph Kim” and confirmed his actual identity. The Korea Herald first learned of Travel Expert after several of Zenith Travel’s victims received e-mail advertisements from the company.

During a call to Travel Expert’s office, a person answering to Joseph Kim denied he was Kang and claimed to have never heard of Zenith Travel.

“What are talking about, a different company? We are marketing to … the Korean market,” he said.

He further claimed his company has been in business for about three years and is based in Yongin City, Gyeonggi Province.

The Korea Herald has also learned that at least three more people did business with Kang under the banner of Zenith Travel in late November and mid-December, some two months after his arrest and business suspension. Each of those customers is still owed money by Kang.

Seocho District Office revoked Kang’s business license on Oct. 6 last year after it emerged that Kang owed more than 61 million won to some 25 people. The number of people claiming to have been scammed since then has swollen to more than 50, several of whom are owed more than 10 million won.

The Korea Herald reported in September that Kang had on numerous occasions canceled foreign customers’ flights shortly before departure, often without notice, and failed to provide refunds. Seocho Police were first made aware of Zenith Travel in early August, but Kang was not arrested until October, after the case had been transferred to the International Crime Investigation Department at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.

The police officer in charge of the case, who requested anonymity, said it had been handed over to the prosecution and he was unaware of its current status.

A prosecutor familiar with the case who did not wish to be named said the investigation was ongoing at the East Branch of Seoul District Prosecutors’ Office. He said he could not elaborate on any other details of the case.

A lawyer representing a number of Kang’s victims in a civil suit earlier told The Korea Herald that a judge had ruled not to detain Kang after his arrest as he was not deemed to be a flight risk.

A group of Zenith Travel’s victims are currently in the process of suing Kang for their money back.