[The Korea Herald] Should Koreans work less?

By John Power

It’s no secret that Koreans work the longest hours of any developed nation. In 2010, each worker put in an average of 2,111 hours. Workers in Korea also take some of the fewest holidays. Just 53 percent take all of their holiday time, compared to 89 percent of the French, according to a 2010 poll by IPSO. On the back of this work ethic, Korea has risen from poverty to become the world’s 13th-largest economy. But after decades of strong economic growth and rising prosperity, employees and policymakers are paying increasing attention to quality of life.

In a recent survey of Seoul workers by online information provider PayOpen and Korea Research, 41.1 percent of respondents choose leisure time as a factor in deciding whether to accept a job, closely following the proportion that chose salary, 45.8 percent. According to Statistics Korea, 65.8 percent of Koreans used leisure facilities in the year between July 2010 and July 2011, while 58.6 percent saw cultural, artistic or sports events on at least one occasion. At the same time, just 32.1 percent of Koreans were satisfied with their leisure, with finances cited as the biggest reason.

And despite remaining top of the international tables, Koreans’ work hours are at something of a low-water mark, having fallen steadily since the introduction of a five-day, 40-hour work week in 2004.

Offices remain lit up into the night in Yeoido, Seoul’s finacial district. The nation’s demanding work culture means that many employees work way beyond regular office hours. (The Korea Herald)

“The force, you may call it a cultural force, is increasing to enjoy leisure because of the family, because of the children, because of the school kids, so probably the resistance (to working shorter hours) at the moment in the long run will be reduced,” Kim Yong-hak , a sociology professor at Yonsei University, told the Korea Herald.

Changing attitudes

Different work and leisure expectations among the younger generation in particular have driven this trend, he said.

“At 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock they want to go home even though there is some leftover work. Previously, maybe 10 years ago, it was unimaginable in Korean companies, but the younger generations refuse to … overwork,” Kim said.

“They all claim this 15-day law-protected vacation period. But previously they did not go on vacation but now they are enjoying this vacation more and more. So, statistics show that the leisure industry is growing rapidly.”

Other factors, such as the abolishment of school on Saturdays, has further contributed to a greater focus on time away from work, he added.

While they put in far more hours than their international peers, Korean workers ranked just 24th for productivity among OCED-country employees in 2010. In 2011, labor productivity, or GDP per hours worked at current prices, was just 46.5 percent of that of the U.S.

“Especially labor productivity in wholesale and retail, restaurants, hotels is so weak due to it being the traditional service sector in Korea as well as it being a labor-intensive sector,” said Rhee Keun-hee, a senior researcher at Korea Productivity Center.

“In addition, manufacturing is relatively innovative in terms of product innovation and process innovation, but not in services. It is characteristic of (the) service (industry) in general.”

Pyo Hak-kil, an economics professor at Seoul National University, attributes this poor productivity to overregulation and a lack of foreign competition in the service industry.

“(The) Korean economy is still in the catch-up stage and therefore, its productivity is lower than U.S., Japan, the OECD average and EU 15 average. … But it is getting better and it will as we move from low- technology products to high technology products following incremental comparative advantage and going up the competition ladder.”

President Lee Myung-bak and some labor experts believe that shorter working hours could have a positive effect on productivity and unemployment ― as well as people’s quality of life. Labor Minister Lee Chae-pil claimed in January that 5,200 jobs were created through a government crackdown on workplaces that violated working hours restrictions.


If employees work fewer hours, according to the ministry’s logic, companies are compelled to hire more workers to make up the loss. Similar rationale was put forward by the French government when it introduced a 35-hour working week in 2000, though its effects remain contentious.

“The mega trend of Korean society is to reduce the work hours because of the high unemployment and of course there is a conflict between the labor aristocracy … labor aristocracy is those who are unionized with very strong power and with high pay and this labor aristocracy is having a conflict with less secure workers in Korea,” said Kim.

But despite the seemingly obvious attraction of fewer hours in the office, not all employees are keen to cut down. The Labor Ministry last month stepped back from a plan to include weekend work in the calculation of overtime, currently capped by law at 12 hours a week. Resistance came from both employers and employees, the former worried about increased labor costs, the latter reluctant to give up lucrative overtime pay. Minister Lee conceded that more time was needed for “study and discussion” of the issue, but insisted there was consensus among economy-related ministers on reducing work hours. Any such consensus is not present among economists.

Pyo, for one, believes the emphasis on a shorter work week is misplaced.

“Cutting Korea’s work hours would not be a solution because it reflects (the) social and corporate culture of work habit and standards of office work. Many factory workers are working overtime to secure extra compensation for their family budget needs.

“Their employers may find it better than trying to recruit new part-time or full-time workers because they can cut over-time work but cannot reduce extra workforce when business conditions deteriorate. In other words, the long working hours might have been (a) rational work practice by both employers and employees.”

Pyo is also skeptical of fewer work hours translating into more jobs.

“It would not be an effective way of boosting employment because most employers are afraid of increasing part-time and full-time employees since once they hire them, it is very difficult for them to lay-off some of them (because of) labor law and strong union activity. And factory automation and information and communications technology use in offices make employers save their labor costs rather than boosting the employment level.”

Inevitable trend

Nevertheless, the recent trend has been decisively one-way: away from the work-is-all mentality of the past. Kim sees the shift as inevitable, whether it should be welcomed or not.

“I cannot judge morally … but empirically speaking, that is an inevitable trend, it occurs everywhere in the world, in every country. As the economy grows rapidly and people have some wealth, then they begin to enjoy leisure. But Korean people … are still maybe the most hardworking (in the world).”


[The Korea Herald] Scam travel agent given 21/2 years

The final part of the Zenith Travel scam series of articles. — John. 

By John Power

A travel agent who scammed some 65 foreign customers out of more than 170 million won ($147,000) was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison at Seoul Eastern District Court on Tuesday.

Kang Wan-koo, who also goes by “Wystan,” was also fined an undisclosed amount of several million won.

Kang took millions of won from customers for non-existent flights through his company Zenith Travel, often claiming the bookings had been accidentally cancelled. Many of his victims only discovered they had no booking when they arrived at the airport to take their flight. Kang also embezzled some 60 million won in travel certificates allocated to him by an unnamed travel agency.

Kang was first arrested last October, almost nine weeks after the initial police complaint, but was released shortly after. He then continued his scam with a new company, Travel Expert, under the alias Joseph Kim. Kang was arrested again and indicted in mid-February, five weeks after The Korea Herald reported on Travel Expert.

The presiding judge, surnamed Lee, said that while Kang had no previous criminal record, his crimes were extremely serious. Lee noted that Kang had ruined a wedding ceremony, family gathering and honeymoon, causing great distress to his victims.

He added that he did not believe Kang regretted his crimes, despite him apologizing in court. The prosecution had requested a four-year prison sentence. Kang has seven days to appeal.

[The Korea Herald] Can Korea ever accept homosexuals?

By John Power

Homosexuality has long been taboo in Korean society. The traditional Confucian emphasis on familial bonds led homosexuality to be regarded as detrimental to the societal order, as defined by the philosophy’s five categories of social relationship. In the 1980s, homosexuals were widely feared as AIDS carriers.

Today, many Koreans continue to see the sexual orientation as deviant or symptomatic of mental illness. Some even question its very existence: A pastor last month claimed on national television that the country was free of homosexuality. With such perceptions to contend with, many gay men and women hide their identity from colleagues, friends and family.

Simply “coming out” is one of the biggest challenges for gay people here, according to a director at a gay men’s organization that is contacted by about 50 people each week.

“Most people have little understanding of homosexuals, not very deep. I think that they need to be more interested about gay people’s lives and human rights,” said Lee Jong-goel, director-general of Chingusai, or “Between Friends.”

Outside influence

It was this lack of knowledge that filmmaker Lee Hyuk-sang was concerned with when he made “Miracle on Jongno Street,” a 2010 documentary about the lives of four gay Korean men.

“Most Korean straight people did not have information and opportunities to meet gay people around them,” said Lee. “So my documentary was a kind of educational material for them, and they learned and felt about gay people’s everyday lives. Some of them were shocked, because actual Korean gay men and their lives in my film were so ‘normal.’ They thanked me and my film and said ‘I’ll be a supporter for gay people!’”

Lee said he was heartened by the mainly positive response to his film. Perhaps surprisingly, much of the negative reaction actually came from within the gay community itself.

“My film revealed the gay life and gay image in Jongno, so they were afraid to ‘be recognized’ as gay by straight people who didn’t have a gay image and notion (before watching the film).”

One misconception that exists is that homosexuality is a foreign condition, its presence in Korea being attributable to relatively recent outside influences.

“Many Korean homophobes think that Korea had no gay people before the ’90s. They think that it was influenced by Western culture. But that’s not true. They don’t want to know their friends and family members’ sexuality,” said the Chingusai director.

In fact, before the arrival of the Joseon Dynasty in the 14th century and its elevation of Confucian principles, Korea was relatively tolerant of same-sex relationships. According to a paper on the history of homosexuality in Korea by Kim Young-gwan and Hahn Sook-ja, elite warriors during the Silla Kingdom known as “hwarang” engaged in homosexual behavior, while King Kongmin of the Goryeo Kingdom practiced pederasty. While the Confucianism of the Joseon era rarely made direct references to sexual matters, homosexuality necessarily came into conflict with the ridged kinship mores of the time.

“Korean culture, as well as other Asian cultures with strong ties to Confucianism, still views homosexual people as problematic and disruptive to family tradition,” said Lim Hyun-sung, an associate professor at the College of Social Welfare at Kangnam University in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province.

As the influence of Confucianism has weakened over time, a belief system more recent to Korea has become a significant source of opposition to homosexuality: Christianity.

While there is some diversity of opinion of the issue within the faith, most churches see homosexual acts as sinful. The Christian Council of Korea is the largest organization of Christian churches in Korea, comprised of 69 dominations and 20 Christian organizations. The organization recently protested a concert by Lady Gaga, partly because of her supposed promotion of homosexuality.

“The value of Christianity is love, so we also have affection toward homosexual people. … But in a doctrinal way, we think (of it) as a sin, we hate that kind of sin, but we also love homosexuals as well,” said a CCK team manager who did not wish to be named, stressing he was speaking in a personal capacity only.

“We think God created man and woman and allowed them to be one in marriage. So based on that, we are upholding those kinds of values and are opposing the homosexual issue.”


While he acknowledges the differing views on homosexuality within Korean Christianity, he believes that the majority view is here to stay.

“In the near future I think various perspectives will exist, but thinking of the Korean church history, still maybe five years later, 10 years later, Korean conservative groups (will be) a majority of the Korean church.”

Ian Johnson, the founder and CEO of Now Global, the world’s biggest consulting company on the needs of gay consumers, sees it differently. His firm recently launched “Out Now Global LGBT2020 Study,” an anonymous online survey on gay people’s lives in numerous countries, in Korea. Since the company was established in 1992, the constant trend in every country has been greater acceptance of homosexuals, he said.

“In every country we have worked in during the intervening twenty years the trend has been consistently one that sees visibility as the first step ― through research such as our LGBT2020 study ― followed by increasing levels of comfort among general society as they learn that gay people are not that different from themselves,” said Johnson.

“Some aspects of the LGBT life can be different for individual respondents, of course, but in general the types of things that concern mainstream Koreans ― such as work, jobs, finances, families ― can be expected to also concern gay or lesbian Koreans too.”

Johnson said its was too earlier for the survey to have produced clear data for Korea, but that expectations were that Korea would show fewer people “out” than in countries such as the U.S.

“The whole notion of being ‘out’ is really quite new in Korea. Whereas in other places, like the U.S. or Australia, people have been publicly coming out as homosexual since the 1970s and 1980s, and in other places like Germany since the 1920s ― in Korea this is a very new trend.”


For Lee, there is reason to be cautiously hopeful that Korea will eventually be accepting of homosexuality. Some viewers of his film at the Berlin International Film Festival told him that the German capital had been like Korea 30 or 40 years ago.

“There was fear, homophobia, hate crime and prejudice in Berlin at that time, but now Berlin is the central ‘gay’ city in the world where gay people can express their love on the street hand-in-hand, out of the closet,” Lee said.

But he believes it will take time for Korea to catch up ― perhaps 40 years.

“I’m expecting Seoul like that in the future but I’m not sure. So that’s why I’m making films about LGBT people in Korea, because film is the most effective media for spreading messages to the world and can make straight people have positive attitudes toward LGBTs. As for me, that is my duty, I think.”

[The Korea Herald] Does the media portray foreigners fairly?

Xenophobia in the media is a recurring complaint among foreigners in Korea. In the summer of 2012, an MBC documentary entitled “The Shocking Truth About Relationships With Foreigners” provoked a particularly strong reaction from foreigners in the country. This and other incidents inspired the following look at the Korean media’s portrayal of non-Koreans. — John 

For many Westerners here it was an all-too-familiar example of the media’s habitual vilification of non-Koreans. An MBC segment focusing on Western men and their relationships with Korean women titled “The Shocking Truth About Relationships With Foreigners” provoked outrage online for what many saw as blatantly xenophobic and sensationalistic journalism.

The segment described Westerner-Korean couples walking arm-in-arm as displaying “daring intimacy” and featured unverified claims of foreign men stealing from their partners and infecting them with HIV.

When several “victims” contacted by the show denied they’d had any negative experiences of dating a foreigner, the narration rationalized that “most of the victims avoid telling the truth.”

Defending the segment several days after airing, the lead writer told The Korea Herald that it had attempted to portray “a difference in culture” and was “based on facts.” At the time of writing, a Facebook group protesting the broadcast had garnered more than 8,500 members, including Koreans in relationships with foreigners.

The MBC broadcast was far from the first to be accused of maligning Westerners living here. Previous reports, such as a 2005 SBS segment titled “Is Korea their Paradise? Report on the Real Conditions of Blond-haired, Blue-eyed Teachers,” focused on similar themes.

Symbolic stigma

Kyung Hee University law professor Benjamin Wagner said the most striking aspect of the MBC segment was its focus on HIV.

“MBC has indicated that its program was more of the same nonsense portraying foreign English teachers as sexual predators who victimize defenseless Korean women and infect them with AIDS, but the irony is of course that teachers have been tested and re-tested for HIV ― how is it that they still represent an AIDS threat?” he said.

Wagner, a longtime advocate against mandatory HIV tests for foreigners, said that persistent claims over the years that foreigners carry the virus have represented a “symbolic stigma,” where HIV is used as a vehicle to express hostility toward foreigners and especially sexual relationships between different races.

The MBC program, he said, marked a new low for a major broadcaster in that regard.

“When mandatory HIV tests were introduced for foreign teachers in 2007 the argument from the government was that they were supposed to rehabilitate the reputations of these teachers and reassure Korean citizens about foreigners. Of course, the exact opposite of that has happened, the testing has reinforced the existing stigma and now it’s become acceptable for a major broadcasting network to insinuate that foreigners are spreading AIDS.”

Wagner also pointed out that previous portrayals by even minor media groups have had big consequences for the residency requirements of foreigners in the country, most notably with the introduction of HIV testing in 2007.

“The education ministry has said before ‘well we don’t think foreign teachers have AIDS or the likelihood to transmit it, we just want to make the parents feel comfortable.’ So the question is why do the parents feel uncomfortable, why do they think they have AIDS? So this you basically trace this back to a lot of stories in the media stories portraying foreigners as suspect for HIV like this most recent one from MBC.”

Migrant workers from East and Southeast Asia have also complained of their representation in the media, leading to the formation in 2005 of Migrant Workers TV Network, to counter what one participant described as the media’s depiction of migrant workers as “comical or miserable.”

Mahbub Alam, the director of Asia Media Culture Factory, a group of artists that often explores migrant issues, says that the media has tended to either shy away from migrant issues completely, or only depict migrant workers as “poor” and “helpless.”

He has, however, seen much change in his time here, especially from film and in the emergence of small, independent media outlets.

“In many cases, (with) the programs like (on) KBS and MBC, you didn’t find any kind of alternative TV programs here, not about migrant rights, it’s very hard,” said Alam, who arrived here from Bangladesh 13 years ago.

Rising crime

Much media emphasis, too, has been placed on the rising crime rate among foreign laborers from China, Vietnam and other Asian nations. Last month, the Chosun Ilbo reported that foreigners account for about 8 percent of murders despite making up just 2.8 percent of the population. The story, as with many others on the subject of foreigner crime, did not provide full context for its statistics. While crimes by foreigners have risen in recent years, the overall foreigner crime rate remains below that of the general population.

Seong Sang-hwan, a professor at the National Center for Multicultural Education at Seoul National University, identifies a tendency by the media to idolize Korean ancestry and see collectives rather than individuals as coloring its coverage. He notes the celebration of successful ethnic Koreans overseas such as Fleur Pellerin, who was recently appointed to the Cabinet of recently elected French President Francois Hollande.

“They value these people highly even though these ethnic Koreans don’t have much to do with Korean society. These people are valued highly just because they have a Korean ethnic background,” said Seong.

Negative generalizing about foreigners is the other side of the same coin, according to Seong, as seen in the backlash against ethnic Korean-Chinese in the wake of a brutal murder in Suwon in April.

“When this kind of serious crime case happens, then Korean people, they tend to associate this case, or this person, with the entire ethnic group.”

But not all depictions of non-Korean living here have been negative. The rise in the numbers of so-called “multicultural families” has been followed by a steady stream of stories highlighting the difficulties they face in acutely homogenous Korean society. The Korea Herald featured an interview with Jasmine Lee, the country’s first foreign-born lawmaker, earlier in the year on the challenges multiethnic children face, while a piece in another English-language daily last year spoke of how families from diverse backgrounds can make Korean society more open.

Arirang TV newscaster Sean Lim believes that his station’s status as a public broadcaster allows it to avoid sensationalism in its coverage, including its coverage of foreigners.

“As a public entity, Arirang is not driven to focus on scandals and sensationalism in the pursuit of profit. This gives us space to expand our coverage to a wider variety of topics including human interest stories that show the contributions of those in our foreign community,” said Lim. “For many Koreans, Arirang is a comfortable conduit to the foreign community because we cover events, conferences and foreign news from a perspective that is relevant to Korea.”

He rejects the idea that journalists should do “positive” or “negative” stories, but rather sees the journalist’s job as to “bring light to the dark places.” In telling the news, the station naturally portrays foreigners’ positive contributions.
“Every day we show foreigners who live active, passionate and normal lives here in Korea,” Lim said. “Very recently we covered stories like the Latin American Cultural Festival, foreign students performing traditional Korean music at the National Folk Museum of Korea, and an international chef competition at the 2012 International Congress of the World Association of Chefs Societies. In the past we also covered stories of foreigners volunteering at animal shelters or helping the homeless.”

Lim declined to comment on the coverage of other outlets.


Whether some coverage is seen as positive or negative could depend on the consumer’s views about multiculturalism and assimilation.

Seong referenced a recent episode of KBS’ “Love in Asia” that told the story of an immigrant widow who looks after her sickly Korean father-in-law.

“She lost her husband … so she is raising her kids without her husband and then she is also supporting her parents-in-law. The program portrayed such a picture that what she does for the entire family … is very good. It inherits traditional Korean values.

But the program was criticized by the Korea Communications Commission for elevating assimilation above multiculturalism, according to Seong.

“The commission cautioned the broadcasting team … (They questioned) why the (producers) are thinking why the foreign wives should support parents-in-law and why this should be portrayed as a model case.”

[The Korea Herald] Should foreign athletes get special naturalization?

By John Power

Never has it been more difficult to define what it means to be Korean. Unprecedented immigration to the country in recent years, and the demographic and cultural change brought with it, has challenged the assumption that Korean citizenship and ethnicity are synonymous. Inevitably, this blurring of identity has crossed into the realm of sport.

The Korean Olympic Committee last month rejected a bid by Brazilian footballer Eninho for special naturalization that would have allowed the K-League star to play for the national side. Despite the Korea Football Association and national side coach Choi Kang-Hee supporting his naturalization, the KOC ruled against the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors midfielder on the grounds that the player failed to demonstrate a basic understanding of Korean language and culture. The Ministry for Justice, which has the final say on cases of naturalization, is expected to follow the KOC’s recommendation.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ Eninho recently had the KOC recommend against his application for special naturalization. (Yonhap News)

Since the introduction of dual nationality in certain cases in January 2011, the KOC has made recommendations for special naturalization on behalf of four athletes, three in basketball and one in speed skating, all of which were successful.

Despite its brief as a sporting organization, the KOC takes into account cultural familiarity when making recommendations on naturalization. When asked why by The Korea Herald, considering that the decision ultimately rests with the Justice Ministry, a spokesman for the KOC referred to the current law.

“According to the Nationality Act article 7, one must have good conduct, have Korean language abilities and an understanding of Korea customs as basic requirements even in the case of naturalization, as written in the Nationality Act article 5,” said the spokesman who did not wish to be named.

“The opinions of the Korea Football Association and national team coach are taken into account in regard to sporting ability, but as this is a question of double nationality, other factors have been considered also.”

A spokesman at the KFA said the football association fully respected the KOC’s decision, saying it “was the end of the story” as far as appealing the decision.

The spokesman, who did not wish to be named, went on to say that the benefits of naturalization made it a sensitive issue.

“If you acquire Korean citizenship it means you can play in Asian Football Confederation countries as a non-foreign player so a huge benefit can be given by acquiring Korean citizenship,” he said.

Public acceptance

Regardless of legal decisions made at the governmental level, there remains the question of how accepting the general public is of visible minorities representing the nation.

“It seems that Koreans do not mind having ― or even like to have ― foreign athletes in certain professional sports such as baseball, basketball, etc. as long as they play well. I think that the demands for good foreign players in professional/commercial sports will continue and foreign athletes can play an important role there,” said Park Jung-sun, a professor of Asian Pacific Studies at California State University with an interest in South Korean identity and citizenship.

Park believes, however, that the Korean notion of “one blood” may mean the general public is not yet ready to embrace athletes with an outwardly foreign appearance. The public might be more welcoming toward athletes of Korean ancestry seen as “returning home” and “representing the homeland,” however.

“The Korean public may show a sense of disapproval, reluctance or even bewilderment if those foreign athletes are included in a ‘national team’ that represents Korea in the Olympics or similar international events. Although Koreans’ exposure to and understanding of multiculturalism have increased over the years, Koreans’ notions of ‘us’ and the nation are still, by and large, grounded on their shared blood.”

This view was echoed by the spokesman for the KFA.

“Cultural familiarity is quite significant for many conservative Korean people to allow foreign-born, foreign blood (people to play), obviously having a different appearance from the general Korean public. Still, Korean society is not fully open … we are in the process of (dealing with) that.”

Time needed

Stressing that it was his personal opinion rather than that of his organization, he said that Korea was still not ready for foreign-born players donning the national colors.

“It needs time to have a foreign player as a national player wearing the red shirt as a Korean representative, it needs time. It is not the right time or place, I think.”

Ko Seong-kyeong, a professor at the Department of Physical Education at Daegu University, believes that a public consensus is vital in any approach to the issue, whatever the opinion of sporting and governmental institutions.

“We must consider several factors for granting some foreign athletes special citizenship. Although some foreign players satisfied the legal guideline for citizenship and were permitted citizenship, we need public agreement. Especially, we have many native players in football, baseball and basketball. Therefore, before honoring national team players, we must try to make a public agreement.”

Koh emphasized, however, that foreign athletes have already made a major contribution to professional sport here.

Valuable contribution

“The foreign athletes playing in Korean leagues are very important to developing Korean professional sports. They are influencing the performance of native athletes to develop sports skill, manage and maintain fitness, and communicate with mass media. The native players have known about all this, but have not applied it in their sports fields. Therefore, Korean players have emulated them and have improved their sports ability.”

Another consideration is the risk of special consideration for athletes causing resentment ― both among Koreans and other immigrants.

“In the case of male athletes, the mandatory military service is a crucial issue,” said Park. “Hence, if a young foreign male athlete of military service age were granted citizenship without the obligation, it would generate much resentment and controversy.

“(Also), individuals who wish to gain Korean citizenship have to meet certain criteria. The criteria have been an obstacle to many foreigners including those with Korean heritage such as Korean Chinese. Thus, unless the same yardsticks are used for both athletes and non-athletes, it may generate resentment.”

KOC’s spokesman acknowledged this concern.

“We are aware that special naturalization is a privilege as compared to normal naturalization in which one must discard their original nationality. When considering the purpose of such a system, we believe that special naturalization cases should be constrained to thorough evaluation.”