[The Christian Science Monitor] Having built nation from scratch, elderly S. Koreans feel abandoned

Jeong Soon-ja spent a lifetime working and raising children as part of a generation that lifted South Korea from rural squalor and postwar ruin to become the world’s 15th  largest economy.

Yet like many of her peers, Ms. Jeong lives in poverty and isolation. Too frail to work, her husband gone, her children seemingly disinterested, she survives on a government pension of about $200 a month, plus a monthly allotment of kimchi and rice from a district office in the gritty Seoul neighborhood of Gaebong-dong, which lacks the glitz of districts like Gangnam.

“When I was young, I should have saved money, but I had to feed, clothe and teach my children,” says the octogenarian, who sits on her haunches, a stance ingrained among older Koreans. She did laundry and maintenance work all her life and now has no pension, and says, “my money is all gone.”

Family ties weakening?

Jeong’s situation is becoming more common among a generation given credit for aiding South Korea’s lightning rise to manufacturing and high tech prowess. A new government-funded study shows nearly half of South Koreans over 65 living in relative poverty as recently as 2011, in a society whose traditionally strong family bonds are weakening.

One of Jeong’s six children pays her rent and utilities. But in a culture that honors the elderly, she hasn’t seen her eldest or youngest daughter in five years, and rarely hears from the others.

Almost half of elderly South Koreans earn less than 50 percent of the median wage, according to a March study from the Korea Labor Institute. That abysmal rate is the lowest of all countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, and is twice the figure of second-ranked Switzerland. (In Japan, a recent study found nearly half of the 1.6 million Japanese living below the poverty line were elderly.)

In South Korea, most seniors in financial straits live alone. Whereas it was once common for three generations to live under one roof, about one in five elderly citizen now resides in a single-occupant household.

Low birth rate

“In the past, when a grandfather and grandmother, or a mother and father, taught their children, those children had a responsibility to support them because living all together like this was a help to everyone,” says Kim Hyun-mi, general manager of the government-affiliated Comprehensive Support Center for the Elderly Living Alone. “But now, you can see that support has weakened because they live separately.”

The challenge of providing for the old is particularly acute in South Korea, which has one of the most rapidly graying populations in the world, a consequence of a chronically low birthrate.

Jo Joon-yong, a professor of social welfare studies at the regional Hallym University, says that the elderly are projected to account for a quarter of the population by 2030, creating a potential future crisis for the welfare system.

“To maintain a social security system, you need a young generation to pay taxes and premiums for the social insurance system,” he says.

Amid the decline in filial piety in Korean families, the government has only marginally plugged the gap in support. Last year, South Korea had the lowest social spending of any OECD country.

President Park Geun-hye campaigned in 2012 on a pledge of introducing a universal state pension of about $200 a month. But that figure got scaled back to about $100-200 for the poorest 70 percent of seniors. Seniors who receive such benefits potentially lose out on separate, means-tested assistance for the poor.

Problems of living alone

The feasibility of more generous welfare schemes has been a political flash point between liberal and conservative politicians in a nation that is roughly divided along these general lines. Political gridlock may be slowing welfare reform, but more social spending in future appears inevitable, given the aging population.

“I think that because it is now in the beginning phase, welfare benefits for the old are insufficient compared to other countries, but in the future welfare benefits will be provided stably just like in advanced countries,” says Ms. Kim, the support center official.

Mental health, loneliness, and what Kim calls “emotional problems” are becoming more pressing concerns among elderly living alone, she says.

South Korea has the highest overall suicide rate in the OCED, and men aged 80 and above die by their own hand at almost five times the rate of those aged 30-39, according to government statistics.

Jeong, who speaks in loud, defiant bursts, insists she is satisfied with life. She regularly meets friends. But she also admits to being lonely.

Above all, she misses her daughters, who she has become convinced no longer love her. Even when she recently was hospitalized for an emergency, they did not visit.

“I really miss my daughters but they never contact me,” she says. “I miss my daughters the most. That’s the saddest thing.”

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[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.”

[The Korea Herald] How can Korea boost tourism?

Korea isn’t a common choice for Western tourists, though it enjoys significant numbers of visitors from China and Japan. This piece was written in the context of common complaints by foreigners living in Korea that the country doesn’t do a good job of promoting its strengths. — John.

By John Power

Korean tourism has seen something of a boom in recent years. Foreign tourist numbers grew almost 50 percent from 2007-2011, from about 6.5 million visitors to close to 10 million.

This year, the Korea Tourism Organization aims to increase that number to 11 million. But despite the considerable progress in bringing in more tourists, Korea still lags behind some of its neighbors in the region. Thailand saw 19 million visitors last year, while Singapore attracted 13.2 million. China, the world’s fourth-largest country, welcomed 53 million visitors in 2010, the last year for which figures were available.

Moreover, Korea ranked just 32nd out of 139 countries in last year’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report compiled by The World Economic Forum. In Asia-Pacific, Korea placed 6th in the index, which measures how attractive a destination is to tourists.

Tourists get help from led jacket tour guides in Myeong-dong in Seoul. (Yonhap News)

Storytelling

Robert Koehler, a 15-year resident of Korea from the U.S. and author of two travel books on the country, believes better communicating the stories behind the sights could boost the industry.

“I think Korea has begun doing a pretty good job promoting what it’s got. It’s just a question of being patient and remaining on target ― the results will come. That said, like any place, a lot of places in Korea have great stories behind them, some of them not widely known. ‘Storytelling’ is just coming into its own, so those of us involved in promoting Korean travel need to be looking always for good stories to put a name to a place, so to speak,” he said.

For Koehler, this should include retelling not only the prouder moments of the country’s history, but the uglier events of its past as well.

“Not all history is pretty, but even the ugly stuff can be fascinating as long as you’ve got the confidence to embrace it and share it.”

Lee Jang-hyuk, an associate professor of marketing at Korea University, favors a different approach. Rather than dwelling on its past, Korea’s should be highlighting its vibrant present.

“… Make visitors experience Korea of today, not its history. For example, not many people visit Hong Kong and Singapore to visit museums. We’d better propose unique experiences such as concerts, sports events, theater (and) shopping supported effectively by Korea’s mobile and fixed Internet infrastructure. (For example) five-day free access to the Wi-Fi/LTE network for visitors,” said Lee.

In promoting the Korea of today, hallyu should play a major role, according to Lee, who pointed to the popularity of K-pop groups such as Girls’ Generation, whose music video for “The Boys” has garnered more than 45 million views so far on YouTube.

“I think recent K-pop stars would be appropriate models for information diffusion and sharing with target customers. For example, SM Town effectively leverages new media. It starts with YouTube archiving its singers’ videos and its singers communicate with their fans directly through Twitter as well as their Facebook fans.”

But despite the last decade’s upsurge in tourism, it is a common refrain that Korea suffers from its location between China and Japan, countries that loom large in any imagination.

Koehler cautions against inevitable comparisons to neighbors such as China, which he sees as unfair, despite Korea’s potential as a tourist destination.

“Korea is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, especially from other Asian countries, in no small part due to its growing ‘cool’ factor. Still, in terms of absolute numbers, it’s a bit unrealistic to expect Korea to compete with China. China is, well, China. There’s a reason it’s the third most popular tourist destination worldwide.”

But according to a spokeswoman for the Korea Tourism Organization, the organization does not see a disadvantage in the country having such imposing neighbors. If anything, it should be seen as the opposite.

“The proximity to China and Japan has a positive impact on Korean tourism as China and Japan have the world’s largest potential in regard to consumption,” said the spokeswomen who asked not to be named.

Distinct image

“In fact, Japan ― 33.6 percent in 2011 ― and China ― 22.7 percent in 2011 ― represent the largest proportion of foreign tourists to Korea. In addition, there is a synergy effect to attract tourists to Korea from long distance markets ― Europe, America ― who visit China and Japan because Korea is located between these two countries.”

She added that the KTO’s goal is create a distinct image of Korea in the minds of potential tourists, one which conveys Korea’s “unique and special energy” of “Gi” (energy), “Heung” (joy) and “Jeong” (affection).

“The KTO has been trying to create and promote a consistent image of Korean tourism. As a result, Korea is steadily improving its position as a tourist destination.

“The KTO is committed to promoting the image of Korea and attracting foreign tourists through the 31 overseas offices by participating in Tourism Fairs, holding road shows, and developing tourism products.”

The spokeswomen said that around $116 million would be spent on tourism promotion this year.

Nevertheless, the nation’s tourism strategy has come in for criticism. In September, the Federation of Korean Industries blamed over-regulation and a lack of tourism infrastructure such as accommodation and leisure facilities for Korea’s low ranking in tourism competitiveness.

As an example of excessive regulation, the FKI pointed to a rule that prohibits the construction of facilities within a 100-meter radius of cultural properties and in mountainous areas with slopes of more than 21 degrees.

In the view of the FKI, a country with the economic weight of Korea should be more competitive in attracting tourists.

“(Korea’s tourism competitive ranking) is far below where the country stands in terms of gross domestic product and national competitiveness, which are 13th and 22nd each,” it said in a statement.

In the run up to the opening of the Yeosu Expo, the issue of insufficient accommodation was brought back into the spotlight. Organizers admitted that Yeosu wouldn’t have enough accommodation to meet the estimated demand, and advised visitors to lodge in other cities such as Jeonju, Mokpo and Suncheon.

The KTO introduced its own brand of affordable hotels, called BENIKEA, in 2006 to address the wider problem, but the project drew criticism from media and lawmakers for lackluster promotion and scale.

Room for improvement

The KTO has also attracted the scorn of foreigners living here on occasion for what some have seen as stereotypical depictions of foreigners in its advertising.

“When we create the tourism advertisements about Korea for foreign media, we highlight the beauty of Korea rather than using stereotypes of foreigners,” said its spokeswomen. “Before producing the ads, we research views of foreigners through our overseas branch offices. Also, we reflect the views of foreigners on the results of surveys on foreign tourists ― for example, the International Visitor Survey issued each year.”

Koehler, who has worked in collaboration with the KTO, believes the agency has done a great job with a significant challenge, whatever room may remain for improvement.

“I think the KTO and other major tourism-related authorities have done a splendid job providing a wealth of information on a wide variety of tourism sites as well as on lodgings, dining, transportation, etc. I’m being honest here ― they really do. If there is room for improvement, it’s at the local level, where English language info about tourist sites in the locality is sometimes lacking.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)

[The Korea Herald] Does Confucianism have a role in Korea today?

I enjoyed researching this article as the role of Confucianism in Korean society is a common subject of debate among foreigners living in Korea. It is also a subject that seems to provoke very emotional responses at times. The idea for the piece came from a long term Korea expatriate. — John.

By John Power

The teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius have had a profound influence on South Korea. So much so, that the nation is sometimes referred to as the most Confucian society on earth.

An emphasis on family, personal betterment and respect for age and authority continue to feature highly in Korean life to this day, some 2,500 years after the philosopher’s death.

Ethicist and director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University, Tu Weiming is adamant Confucianism still has much to offer a modern society such as Korea.

“Confucianism is arguably the most comprehensive and integrated humanism in world history. It is also one of the most important and significant rational ways of learning to be human among all Axial-Age Civilizations, namely Greek philosophy, Judaism ― by implication Christianity and Islam ― Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. It offers Korea the ‘core values’ that will make her a standard of moral excellence in the developing as well as the developed world,” Tu said.

Tu says that key values set it apart from Western notions of ethics such as “The Golden Rule.”

“Just to name two of these values: the spirit of humanity ― sympathy and compassion ― and the practice of reciprocity. I would argue that the Confucian idea of reciprocity is more congenial to inter-religious and dialogue among civilizations.”

Tu even argues that Confucian values of the common good and hard work without immediate reward contributed to Korea’s rapid recovery from the 2009 financial crisis. In 2010, the country grew its economy by 6 percent while most of the developed world remained stagnant or saw negative growth.

“Similar examples can be found in other Confucian societies, such as Japan and Singapore. In all these societies, the leadership ― often the collaboration between the political and business elite ― can mobilize the whole society ― including the labor and the citizens ― to deal with the national crisis as a collective enterprise. This phenomenon is difficult to imagine in many contemporary societies such as USA, England, France, or Greece,” Tu said.

Hahm Chai-bong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of “Confucianism for the Modern World,” agrees that Confucianism has been instrumental in Koreans’ propensity to rally around a common cause.

“Back in 1997 when the Asian financial crisis hit, we had Koreans giving up gold. The huge spectacle of people lining up in the streets and giving up their gold because they thought our country was going under. We still sort of contrast that with how the Greeks or the Italians or the Spaniards are responding to their financial crisis where they just simply blame politicians and others. You really cannot explain that without Confucianism, where that sense of economic nationalism comes from or the sense that this nation is all on the same boat,” Hahm said.

He also believes the philosophy’s rigorous ethical standards have largely been a positive influence on the nation, despite numerous past and present improprieties in the political and business worlds.

“Confucianism still requires a lot from people in power or authority. That has really served us quite well and it has been a major source of social development and political development in society,” Hahm said.

But Confucianism has its critics, with charges against it ranging from its view of women to its reinforcement of hierarchies, whether deserving or not. In “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell cited deference toward superiors, a Confucian trait deeply embedded in Korean culture, as a major factor in Korean Air having one of the world’s worst safety records from 1988-1998.

“Confucianism began with so little mobility of households et al, and it relies on an unchanging hierarchy, women come up short in almost all relationships,” said Jerome F. Keating, a former professor at National Taipei University and the author of the paper “The Dark side of Confucianism.”

“The 21st century has a growing sense of democracy; even the Arab Spring senses this, where people want the right to choose their leaders and they don’t want to depend on the ‘benevolence’ of those above. Technically, Confucianism relegates responsibility up and down the ladder, but that is more honored in the breach than reality.”

To Keating, Confucianism is largely ill-suited to modern life.

“With any philosophy, religion, ideology you have to examine it from the standpoint of the world for which it set about presenting answers to living. Confucianism was constructed for an agricultural based society and economy: note the low rank given to businessmen at the bottom of the ladder ― how that has changed. That is one of the issues I see. The world of today is not that agriculturally based, it is a globalized society where people are very mobile and the majority of workers make money differently.”

While traces of the philosophy can be found in the earliest records of the Korean Peninsula, its influence grew considerably from the 14th century onward during the Joseon Dynasty. By the 1500s, Neo-Confucianism had come to dominate thought and social mores in the kingdom, largely due to the influence of Yi Hwang and Yi I, the two most prominent scholars of the time who appear today on the 1,000 and 5,000 won notes.

Confucianism emphasizes harmony and the importance of family, recognizing that, in Tu’s words, “the family is indispensable for human survival and flourishing.” Accordingly, societies influenced by the tradition such as Korea, Japan and Taiwan tend to have enviably low levels of violent crime and family breakdown. Keating argues, however, that such positive social indicators shouldn’t be taken at face value.

“In Taiwan, and I am sure in other Asian countries, incest and abuse and rape by uncles, etc. goes unreported because of the shame factor in preserving family image. Similarly I have noted that there is no lessening of extra-marital affairs, etc. Family stays together but at what price? In the West, we call a mistress a mistress. In Asia it gets a (euphemistic) phrase like sciau tai-tai (little wife). You are dealing with cultures where image and face rank higher than honesty and straightforwardness,” he said.

Hahm, too, acknowledges the philosophy’s limitations, noting that the strict dictates of Confucianism are often at odds with the reality of morally weak people.

“Because it is such a highly set standard people try to sometimes shirk it, sometimes to circumvent it. It also leads to a lot of hypocrisy, which leads to a terrible deal of widespread cynicism in society, a sense of betrayal,” Hahm said.

Not only is the ethical bar high, it is distinct from other societies, adds Hahm.

“They are different standards as well. Something like a Lewinsky scandal, I don’t think any Korea politician could survive something like that. So in that sense we have a much higher standard than the western societies where they think that’s a private issue, it’s a private affair as long as the guy is doing OK as a president, that’s what we should worry about, not so much what kind of private life that person has. It’s the kind of distinction Koreans still fail to make.”

Hahm doesn’t advocate a societal return to Confucianism. But he believes where it could be most relevant today is as a counterweight to other modes of thought.

“I think what (role) Confucianism can play, or any kind communitarian traditional order value system can do, is sort of (be) a mitigating factor in whatever excesses individualism in society might create.”