Friday, February 25, 2011

Varying life expectancies among Seoul residents reveal economic disparities

South Koreans living in the more affluent central southern part of Seoul tend to live longer than those in the north, a study said Thursday, a reflection of widening disparities in the quality of life among the residents of the 10-million-strong capital.

According to the study conducted by Cho Young-tae, a public health professor at Seoul National University, an average person living in one of the three most well-to-do districts in Seoul is expected to die at an age above 80 while none of those living in the remaining 22 districts would make it past the mark.

The life expectancy in Seocho district, the most affluent in southern Seoul, was 83.1, while that of Gangbuk district - located in the northeastern part of the city - was 77.8, the study showed.

The study pointed out that people with higher income and social statuses can better afford to live in environments favorable for their health, attributing its findings to socioeconomic factors.

Seoul expanded southward across its landmark Han river as the country's economy grew rapidly in the decades following the 1950-53 Korean War. Riding on the back of heavy investment and modern city development, the central southern part of the capital is considered posher than the northern half, drawing a population with greater buying power and even sparking debate over distribution of wealth. ◦

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Home Internet May Get Even Faster in South Korea

By Mark McDonald

South Korea already claims the world’s fastest Internet connections — the fastest globally by far — but that is hardly good enough for the government here.

By the end of 2012, South Korea intends to connect every home in the country to the Internet at one gigabit per second. That would be a tenfold increase from the already blazing national standard and more than 200 times as fast as the average household setup in the United States.

A pilot gigabit project initiated by the government is under way, with 5,000 households in five South Korean cities wired. Each customer pays about 30,000 won a month, or less than $27.

“South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do,” President Obama said in his State of the Union address last month. Last week, Mr. Obama unveiled an $18.7 billion broadband spending program.

While Americans are clip-clopping along, trailing the Latvians and the Romanians in terms of Internet speed, the South Koreans are at a full gallop. Their average Internet connections are far faster than even No. 2 Hong Kong and No. 3 Japan, according to the Internet analyst Akamai Technologies.

Overseeing South Korea’s audacious expansion plan is Choi Gwang-gi, 28, a soft-spoken engineer. He hardly looks the part of a visionary or a revolutionary as he pads around his government-gray office in vinyl slippers.

But Mr. Choi has glimpsed the future — the way the Internet needs to behave for the next decade or so — and he is trying to help Korea get there. During an interview at his busy office in central Seoul, Mr. Choi sketched out — in pencil — a tidy little schematic of the government’s ambitious project.

“A lot of Koreans are early adopters,” Mr. Choi said, “and we thought we needed to be prepared for things like 3-D TV, Internet protocol TV, high-definition multimedia, gaming and videoconferencing, ultra-high-definition TV, cloud computing.”

Never mind that some of these devices and applications are still under development by engineers in Seoul, Tokyo and San Jose, Calif. For Mr. Choi, nothing seems outlandish, unthinkable or improbable anymore. And the government here intends to be ready with plenty of network speed when all the new ideas, games and gizmos come pouring out of the pipeline.

“The gigabit Internet is essential for the future, absolutely essential, and all the technologists will tell you this,” said Don Norman, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, a leading technology consultancy in Fremont, Calif. “We’re all going to be doing cloud computing, for example, and that won’t work if you’re not always connected. Games. Videoconferencing. Video on demand. All this will require huge bandwidth, huge speed.”

The South Korean project is also meant to increase wireless broadband services tenfold.

Even as South Korea aims for greater, faster connectivity, Internet addiction is already a worrisome social issue here. Deprogramming camps have sprung up to help Net-addicted youngsters.

One South Korean couple, arrested last year, became so immersed in a role-playing game at an Internet cafe that their 3-month-old daughter starved to death — even as they fed and nurtured a virtual, online daughter named Anima.

But industry executives are plowing ahead.

“The name of the game is how fast you can get the content,” said Kiyung Nam, a spokesman for the Korean consumer electronics giant Samsung Electronics. “People want to download and enjoy their content on the go. But right now it’s not seamless. It’s not perfect.”

The idea of the gigabit Internet is not a new one, said Mr. Norman, the American consultant. But large-scale adoptions have not yet taken hold, especially outside Asia.

Hong Kong and Japan offer gigabit service. Australia has a plan in the works for 2018. Google is drafting pilot programs for part of the Stanford campus and other locales in the United States. And Chattanooga, Tenn., has started a citywide gigabit service, reportedly at a staggering $350 a month.

Any technical hurdles in upgrading the existing South Korean infrastructure are minimal, according to engineers and network managers. DSL lines — high-speed conventional telephone wires — will have to be replaced. But fiber-optic lines already widely in use are suitable for one-gigabit speeds.

South Korea, once poorer than Communist North Korea, now has the world’s 13th-largest economy. It recovered from the ravages of the Korean War by yoking its economy to heavy industries like cars, steel, shipbuilding and construction. But when labor costs began to rise, competing globally in those sectors got tougher, so “knowledge-based industries were the way forward,” Mr. Choi said.

South Koreans pay an average of $38 a month for connections of 100 megabits a second, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Americans pay an average of $46 for service that is molasses by comparison.

Mr. Choi declined to guess what private South Korean service providers might charge for the one-gigabit service. But he said it would be nowhere near the $70 a month charged for gigabit rates in Japan.

“I can’t imagine anyone in Korea paying that much,” he said. “No, no, that’s unthinkable.”

Mr. Choi’s gigabit program is just one of several Internet-related projects being coordinated by the government here over the next four years. Their overall cost is projected to be $24.6 billion, with the government expected to put up about $1 billion of that amount, according to the Korea Communications Commission.

Private South Korean firms, notably KT (the former Korea Telecom), SK Telecom and the cable provider CJ Hellovision, are the principal participants in the gigabit project. The government’s financial contribution in 2010, Mr. Choi said, would be just $4.5 million.

For now, most Korean consumers use their blessings of bandwidth largely for lightning Internet access and entertainment — multiplayer gaming, streaming Internet TV, fast video downloads and the like. Corporations are doing more high-definition videoconferencing, especially simultaneous sessions with multiple overseas clients, and technologists are eager to see what new businesses will be created or how existing businesses will be enhanced through the new gigabit capability.

One of the customers already connected to Mr. Choi’s pilot program is Moon Ki-soo, 42, an Internet consultant. He got a gigabit hookup about a year ago through CJ Hellovision, although because of the internal wiring of his apartment building his actual connection speed clocks in at 278 megabits a second.

But even that speed — about a quarter-gigabit — has him dazzled.

“It is so much more convenient to watch movies and drama shows now,” he said. ◦

Seoul Hotel Break-In Has Makings of a Spy Novel

By Mark McDonald

Police officials are investigating a mysterious break-in at the five-star Lotte Hotel, an odd bit of cloak and dagger in Room 1961 whose storyline includes bumbling spies caught red-handed, negotiations for a supersonic jet fighter, a stolen laptop and a conveniently timed meeting with the president of South Korea.

Accounts from the police, local news media, government officials and hotel employees laid out a whodunit tale of the break-in, which took place last Wednesday when visiting Indonesian government and military officials left their rooms at the Lotte for a late-morning meeting with President Lee Myung-bak.

The Indonesians went to the Blue House, the presidential residence and offices, to discuss the purchase of military jets from the government-backed Korea Aerospace Industries. (The Korean plane, the T-50 Golden Eagle, is an advanced jet trainer that can be upgraded to a fighter-bomber. It is being considered for purchase by the Indonesians, who are also considering a subsonic Russian plane, the Yak-130.)

The Indonesians, traveling with their own security personnel, left their rooms unguarded, with their work computers and private documents inside, the police and Indonesian officials said later. The Indonesian group comprised as many as 50 people, reports said, including Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro.

Soon after the Indonesians left their rooms, two men and a woman went up to the 19th floor and entered Room 1961, the police said. Inside were two laptops.

One version of the events, first reported by the newspaper Chosun Ilbo, said that the woman was there when an Indonesian aide returned to the room — his room — and surprised her. She said she had entered the room by mistake, then quickly left.

According to another account, the Indonesian man had interrupted the woman while she was downloading files from a laptop into a small U.S.B. drive.

Meanwhile, the men whom the police have described as her accomplices were discovered in a stairwell with a laptop that did not belong to them. It had been taken from Room 1961, and the Indonesian aide had reported the theft to the hotel. Minutes later, when a hotel employee confronted the men in the stairwell, they handed over the laptop and fled.

Subsequent reports in the press and from the police have implicated the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s principal spy agency. Chosun Ilbo said the intelligence service’s agents had been seeking information on the jet deal and other possible military sales.

The police precinct commander, Seo Beom-kyu, said Monday that a spy agency investigator appeared at the Namdaemun police station at 3:40 on the morning after the break-in, asking to speak to the chief of detectives overseeing the case. It was not immediately clear what the agent was seeking.

A spokesman for the spy agency declined on Monday to comment on the matter. The Blue House also declined to comment.

“Even if it turns out it was the N.I.S., there wouldn’t be any real benefit in punishing them, now, would there?” said the national police chief, Cho Hyun-oh. “If the N.I.S. did it, it was for our own national interests.”

A spokesman for the Indonesian Defense Ministry, Brig. Gen. Wayan Midhio, denied Monday evening that a military laptop or secret data had been stolen. He said a staff aide to the coordinating minister for economic affairs, Hatta Rajasa, had his laptop taken by another hotel guest. The guest, the general said, had entered the staff member’s room by mistake, thinking it was the guest’s own room. Then the guest took the laptop, thinking it was his or her own.

General Wayan said the room was being cleaned when the incident took place. “Because the room was open,” he said, “the person thought it was their room. But as soon as they saw the laptop wasn’t theirs they returned it to the receptionist.”

The general said no one in the Indonesian delegation was carrying secret military information. “The laptop did not belong to the Defense Ministry,” he said.

A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday that Jakarta had asked for an official inquiry. The spokesman, Cho Byung-jae, said, “We agreed to inform them as soon as we are done.” ◦

Monday, February 21, 2011

My favorite South Korean actress, Lee Young-ae, gives birth to twins

이영애, 아들.딸 쌍둥이 출산

South Korean actress Lee Young-ae, widely popular across Asia, has given birth to twins, her agent here said Monday.

Lee, 40, became a mother of fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at a Seoul hospital, said Storms Company.

"The mother and the babies are healthy," it said.

She was secretly married in 2009 in the United States to a Korean businessman, surprising fans everywhere.

Lee, considered one of the most influential actresses in South Korea with a broad fan base built on the Korean Wave throughout East and Southeast Asian countries, debuted in a television commercial in 1991. She started gaining stardom in TV dramas and movies with her composed image and acting prowess.

Lee's popularity exploded after her starring performance in the popular Korean drama "Jewel in the Palace (Dae Jang Geum)," about life of a court lady in the Joseon Dynasty, first released overseas in 2004 and quickly won a following. The fictional historical drama reached as far as Iranian television in 2007 and drew 86 percent of viewers in the Middle East nation, an unprecedented record for a Korean show.

After staring in the 2005 film "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance," directed by Park Chan-wook, she has kept a low profile over the past few years.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

More Korean teens having plastic surgery

The plastic surgery mania in Korea is led by women in their 20s. That may soon change: the big new market for cosmetic procedures is teenagers.

According to an e-Seoul survey, 41.4 percent of teens interviewed said they were “willing to have plastic surgery for beauty.”

“The comparison with older age brackets is stunning: 41.4 percent among teens is almost 10 percentage points higher than interviewees in their 20s, almost 20 percentage points higher than those in their 30s, and nearly 30 percentage points higher than interviewees who were 40 or over, which would seem the prime market for cosmetic surgical improvements,” according to a recent survey.

Even middle school students, female students mostly, are choosing to get their face surgically altered. “The overall client age group has decreased. Among teenagers, high school students were the main clients, but these days, an increasing number of middle school students aged 15 to 16 have been visiting the clinic,” said Jo Seon-hui, manager of Real Cosmetics in Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul.

Lee Seung-hwan, head surgeon of BK DongYang Plastic Surgery Clinic in Nonhyeon-dong, southern Seoul, also said his clinic has seen a gradual increase in teenage clients. “Compared to 2007, the percentage of teenage clients has gradually increased in 2010. What to take note here is the fact that the minimum age group is decreasing to middle school students in grade eight or nine,” Lee said. A female high school student, surnamed Lee, said she wasn’t confident with her looks. “My small eyes were the cause of low self-esteem,” said Lee. “My mom and I made a deal that if I did well on my midterm exams, she’d let me have [plastic surgery].”

After receiving double eyelid surgery during the winter break in her second year in high school, Lee said she got more confident. Korean teens value beauty highly, and getting plastic surgery is no longer considered shameful or embarrassing. And students who have attractive features gain popularity among their peers. The plastic-surgery trend has also been boosted by the popularity of idol groups such as the girl group LGP, which admitted in a TV show interview that “the total of all the plastic surgery operations the members underwent was 27.”

Parents also have a powerful influence on whether their children get plastic surgery. Another female student, surnamed Kim, got double eyelid surgery at the age of 15 at the suggestion of her mother. “My mother was actually quite positive about me getting plastic surgery,” she said. “My mom said that I should be confident when entering high school.”

A recent survey of 250 mothers throughout Korea, conducted by Dove, a personal care brand famous for its soap, showed that one in four moms suggested their teenage child get plastic surgery. “Mass media and the Internet have a big impact on students in their formative years,” said Dr. Park Won-jin of Wonjin Plastic Surgery. “They are easily exposed to television and the concept of “lookism” [discrimination or prejudice based on personal appearance] is thrust on them through the Internet.”

According to several plastic surgeons in Gangnam, southern Seoul, the number of student patients peak during school vacation season in December and January and make up about 5 percent to 10 percent of the total number of patients.

Double eyelid surgery is by far the most popular procedure among young students since it is comparatively low risk. But an operation on certain bones, such as the nose, is not advisable until the student has fully grown because there could be dangerous side effects. Park said as a patient grows, his or her bones could shift after surgery and cause permanent damage. “If plastic surgery is performed on young bones it can trigger problems in the future and may require more surgery,” said Park. ◦

Blueprint for establishing a fair society in South Korea

The Blue House revealed yesterday President Lee Myung-bak’s blueprint to make Korea a fair society, announcing a series of projects to be implemented throughout 2011 that will help the country realize the goal.

Lee hosted the first monthly meeting for the fair society campaign at the Blue House yesterday and the prime minister presented the blueprint.

Five themes in the blueprint were selected to be represented, including eradicating corruption in Korea by operating laws and systems fairly, guaranteeing fair opportunity, protecting rights without privileges, creating a healthy market economy and caring for minorities.

Since Lee presented his “fair society” vision during his Liberation Day address last year, the president has said he will come up with projects that will bring about tangible outcomes to realize the vision.

In addition to the prime minister, ministers from the defense, finance, labor, education, public administration and knowledge economy ministries also presented their ideas at the meeting.

Civilian experts and civic group heads joined the discussion as well, and key projects were selected among the five themes.

They include fair military service duty, fair taxation, protection of workers’ rights and interests and fair personnel appointments in the government.

Other ideas include using education as an opportunity to ease the wealth gap, ending discrimination linked to educational background and facilitating the harmonious growth of conglomerates and smaller companies.

The Lee administration will also work to root out the country’s decades-long practice of allowing former colleagues to give retired judges and prosecutors special treatment when they become lawyers in private practices.

According to the government, the prime minister’s office will be in charge of continuing to check up on the progress being made in the key tasks.

Lee will host a meeting every month from now on to follow up on the progress. ◦

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Financial articles submitted by a student

Thanks Hamilton.

Seoul court rejects multi-million suit against Lehman Bros
A Seoul court Friday ruled in favour of Lehman Brothers International Europe in a damages suit filed by a South Korean firm to recoup lost investments in LBIE's collapsed Dutch subsidiary.

Lehman Brothers Unit Wins S. Korean Court Case on Derivatives

The FSB Conference of Financial Reform in Seoul
Need for the standardization and transparency of derivatives traded through over-the-counter ◦

Friday, February 11, 2011

Matchmaking across the Koreas

There's an old saying among Koreans: South Korean men are known for their looks and North Korean women for their beauty.

Choi Young-Hee took that adage and turned it into a business model. Choi is a matchmaker, bringing hundreds of South Korean bachelors and single North Korean female defectors together.

It's an idea that on the surface appears hopelessly flawed, given the current geopolitical status between the North and South. But Choi had a hunch when she opened her matchmaking agency five years ago that this sort of pairing would work.

She was right.

Nearly 500 marriages later, with only three divorces among them, this self-made Cupid is seemingly a statistical success. Proof, says Choi, that the main barrier to reunification and peace on the Korean peninsula is not the Korean people but politics.

"As I wed each and every couple and the people around them see them living happily together," says Choi, "I think they'll realize they may not like the Kim Jong Il leadership, but they'll know that regular North Koreans are not like that. I think that it's the most important thing in speeding up reunification."

Choi Hyung-Min (unrelated to Choi, the matchmaker) was one of the matchmaker's eligible bachelors. She matched him with one of her North Korean defectors, and they fell in love and married.

CNN met them as they celebrated the first birthday of their daughter, Ye-Ran. The North Korean defector said CNN could not air her picture or reveal her name, fearing that Pyongyang would punish her remaining family in the North.

But she does have a message to share with CNN's viewers and readers.

"From the bottom of my heart, I really hope for reunification," she says.

"We talk about this all the time," says her husband, who has never met her extended family. "Visiting her hometown after reunification."

The North Korean defector says her marriage shows that despite the political differences and years of warlike disputes between the two nations, there is hope for a peaceful peninsula.

"There may be differences with the policies and institutions of the two countries. But we're all the same people, right? We're the same people."

To say that the unions are borne of a desire to reunify the country would ignore a reality in the matches.

North Korean women, says Choi, desire the automatic acceptance and stability a South Korean husband offers. South Korean men want a traditional Korean wife, believes Choi, which North Korean women offer, unlike modern South Korean women.

In crisp blue and yellow file folders, eligible bachelors are noted for their height, education, and job status. But that's not as important as a proper personality match says Choi, who then takes those South Korean men and matches them to North Korean women in her database.

Choi matches couples personally. When pressed what makes a match a marriage, she can't quite say.

Choi's colorful clothing, a leopard fur print jacket and sparkle headband, reveals little of the dark story of her defection out of North Korea.

In 2001, she slipped out of the North into China with her 11-year-old daughter. Her tale is filled with complicated twists and turns, she says. The end result was that a year later, after spending some time in a Mongolian prison, she and her daughter made it to South Korea.

Choi, like many North Korean defectors, suddenly found herself needing to make ends meet in a new capitalist society with not much of a support system. What she knew, she says, is what North Korean women and South Korean men want.

"They say that if you wed three couples, you go to heaven," laughs Choi, "so I guess I have a seat reserved." ◦

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Marriages with foreigners soar in South Korea

One out of every 10 South Korean men and women gets married with a foreigner, with Chinese and Vietnamese brides being the most popular, according to data released Sunday.

Statistics Korea said 33,300 South Koreans tied the knot with foreigners in 2009 alone, accounting for 10.8 percent of all marriages here. It marks a big increase from 4,710, or 1.2 percent, in 1990 but a decline from 42,356, or 13.5 percent, in 2005.

In particular, 11,364 South Korean men wedded Chinese women and 7,249 others married Vietnamese women in 2009, the agency said.

The number of Filipino brides stood at 1,643, followed by Japan with 1,140, Cambodia with 851, Thailand with 496, the United States with 416, Mongolia with 386, Uzbekistan with 365 and Nepal with 316, it noted.


Saturday, February 05, 2011

Can Mubarak's Egypt Follow South Korea’s Path?

By: Peter M. Beck

As the world holds its breath to learn if the Egyptian people's amazing struggle for democracy ends with a breakthrough or a bloodbath, President Hosni Mubarak would do well to consider the South Korea option. Ultimately, Korea's dictators and democracy were both winners.

Like Egyptians, South Koreans endured decades of American-backed dictatorship. In the spring of 1987, Korea's military government held sham elections not unlike the ones held in Egypt last November. However, in both places, a combination of repression and rising expectations proved a combustible mix. If the actual trigger for Egyptians was the sudden overthrow of Tunisia's dictatorship last month, Koreans drew inspiration from the “People Power” overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines the year before. Indeed, “Marcos” became a code word for Korean reporters to describe their own dictatorship.

As in Cairo today, student-led demonstrations drew hundreds of thousands into the streets of Seoul 24 years ago. Like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Korea's Christians played a supporting role at the outset. After weeks of clashes and teargas, on June 29 the government announced that a free and fair direct presidential election would be held within six months. Given that almost exactly seven years earlier, the military unleashed a crackdown that killed over 200 citizens, the question we must ask is, what had changed?

When facing persistent social unrest, all dictators invariably undertake a cost-benefit analysis of cracking down versus opening up. In 1980, Korea's coup leaders correctly determined that there would be little or no cost for killing. Indeed, within months of wiping the blood off of his hands, General-turned-President Chun Doo-hwan was one of President Ronald Reagan's first foreign guests at the White House. Later that same year, Seoul was awarded the 1988 Summer Olympics.

China reached a similar conclusion in June of 1989. After two weeks of martial law, the butchers of Beijing calculated that firing on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square would be of great political benefit and little cost. Indeed, foreign investment actually increased in 1990 and exploded thereafter.

Far from incurring any costs, China and Korea's dictators were rewarded for their bad behavior. For the United States, the price was much higher. A generation of Koreans became virulently anti-American because of our support for a hated regime. Can the U.S. afford such blowback in Egypt?

In Korea in 1987, by contrast, not only were the demonstrations much larger than in 1980, but the Reagan Administration was now insisting that the Chun regime begin the transition to democracy. More importantly, Korean military leaders revealed later that they had considered a crackdown, but feared losing the Olympics if they had turned the streets of Seoul red.

Many pundits have declared that the United Sates is a mere bystander to the struggle for democracy in Egypt, powerless to shape the outcome. This could not be further from the truth. Not only does the U.S. provide $1.3 billion a year in foreign aid (largely to the military no less), but the U.S. is also Egypt's leading trade partner.

Since last Friday, the Obama Administration has only hinted that future U.S. assistance could be linked to the government's behavior. If he has not already done so behind the scenes, President Obama must not waste a moment to make it clear to Mubarak that if the Egyptian army opens fire on innocent demonstrators, U.S. aid stops and sanctions begin. Thugs and camel jockeys will prove unequal to the task of quashing the uprising. If Mubarak still decides to clamp down, then it is time to reevaluate all U.S. overseas assistance. If we cannot shape outcomes in the country that is our second leading aid recipient, then it is time to conduct our own cost-benefit analysis.

If President Mubarak has time to read to the end of the Korean case, he might even fully embrace the decision to open up. Largely free and fair elections were held in South Korea in December 1987 as scheduled, but due to a divided opposition, the military's candidate (and a leader of the previous coup and crackdown no less) managed to win the election. We will never know if there would have been a military coup had one of the opposition candidates won. Once a civilian was elected president five years later, Chun and his successor did briefly spend time behind bars, but they are now living out their days as elder statesmen.

Korea's transition to democracy was conservative and gradual, but democracy was the ultimate winner. Korean legislators may still favor fistfights over filibusters, but Korea is now the most vibrant democracy in Asia. It is not too late for Mubarak to start Egypt down that path. ◦

More Free Trade Follies

It’s been more than three years since the Bush administration signed a trade agreement with South Korea. And for more than three years Congress has been balking at it. To overcome that opposition, the Obama administration got Seoul to improve the terms for American carmakers. Capitol Hill seemed happy — until it wasn’t.

The agreement is the nation’s most significant trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement and decidedly good for the United States. It would cement relations with an important ally in a dangerous region and boost American exports by at least $10 billion a year. Unfortunately, some powerful members of Congress, from both parties, seem more concerned about politics and narrow parochial interests.

The House speaker, John Boehner, is now suggesting that the South Korea deal must be passed “in tandem” with long-delayed trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. Those two deals face fiercer resistance from trade-wary Democrats. And it is hard not to suspect that Mr. Boehner is more interested in embarrassing the White House than using the South Korea deal to leverage the other two deals through.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Max Baucus, the chairman of the Finance Committee, which handles issues related to trade, said he remains opposed to the South Korean pact because it doesn’t go far enough to open its beef market — an issue near and dear to his constituents in Montana. He is demanding that South Korea drop its ban on beef from cattle older than 30 months, imposed after a scare over mad cow disease in the United States.

Mr. Baucus warns that if the United States accepts South Korea’s 30-month cutoff, other importers in the region, like China, Japan or Taiwan, could, too. Still, he is doing no favors to American cattle ranchers, whose exports to South Korea are soaring. The pact would cut tariffs on most beef by 40 percent, which would save them hundreds of millions of dollars.

President Obama needs to push the deal forward and argue its case with Mr. Boehner and Mr. Baucus. This shouldn’t be that hard. The business community, an important Republican constituency, does not want the South Korean pact put at risk. And while Mr. Baucus may want to get more for the beef industry, if he pushes too hard, the industry, and the whole country, will lose out.

While he is on the subject, Mr. Obama should be gearing up to push Democrats to pass the Colombian and Panamanian agreements. They are also very good for the United States. ◦

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Changes in the works for workaholic South Koreans

It's well after 8.00 pm in central Seoul's commercial district, but the lights are still burning brightly in many office towers.

A nine-to-five existence sounds humdrum in other countries, but for most South Korean office workers it's a distant dream. Even a normal working day lasts 10 hours...and then there's the overtime.

"I work overtime at least four days a week," said a 30-year-old who asked to be identified only by an alias, Lee.

His company, like most others, does not pay overtime to office workers. But staff still stay on for at least 30 minutes to one hour, and sometimes longer, after the official workday ends.

In a nation which worked itself out of acute postwar poverty into prosperity, some feel a moral compulsion to linger late. Others fear they will damage promotion prospects by leaving the office before the boss.

Whatever the reason, South Koreans work longer hours than any other member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development -- an average 2,243 hours a year or 46.6 hours per week, according to 2009 OECD data.

This is 500 hours more a year than Japan and about 900 hours more than Germany.

However, the organisation's data on productivity in all sectors -- comparing national output to hours worked -- ranks Korea third from the bottom of 30 OECD countries.

The labour ministry says shorter hours could improve both lifestyles and productivity. But ingrained attitudes take time to change.

"Korea's economy still has potential to grow and Koreans have a strong ethnic characteristic to compete and to finish their jobs as soon as possible," Yang Yoon, a psychology professor at Ewha Womans University, told AFP.

"With those two factors combined, it makes the so-called overworking culture exclusive to Korea."

Employees generally don't complain about their long days.

"Working late is understandable. Much of the time, I stay late to finish my report or task of the day," said a 29-year-old electronics company employee, Shin. Like others, he asked to be identified only by his surname.

Sometimes, it's the company hierarchy -- and a perception that overtime working is virtuous -- which keeps lower-level employees sitting tight at their desks till late in the evening.

"The older generation, who worked through the boom time for the Korean economy, are simply so used to working overtime, like Japan in the 1970s," said professor Yang.

"It's hard to just walk out if the clock says I can go but my boss is still there," agreed Kim, 29.

"I once had a boss who would make me stay late by giving more work right before I go home or would simply ask me, 'Why are you leaving so early?'"

Lee said the "smothering" office atmosphere -- and a fear of damaging promotion prospects -- makes staffers linger at their desks.

The labour ministry in 2004 announced a 40-hour work-week policy for companies with more than 1,000 employees. It has since progressively extended this to smaller firms.

In December the ministry announced the policy would apply from July to companies with fewer than 20 employees. This is estimated to cover about 300,000 firms with about two million employees.

"Although Korea has the longest working hours in the OECD, if the policy is implemented, the quality of life and efficiency are expected to improve," said ministry official Jo Won-Shik.

"Labour productivity usually is inversely proportional to working hours, so lower working hours are likely to mean higher productivity," Jo told AFP in a phone interview.

"Moreover, shorter working hours will increase leisure time, improving the quality of life."

It might even boost the nation's chronically low birthrate.

The health ministry in January 2010 announced it was turning off the lights in its offices at 7.30 pm once a month to encourage staff to go home early and make more babies.

Professor Yang is optimistic the workaholic culture will die out in time.

"When Korea's economy reaches its peak, and when the current young generation takes key positions in companies, then the culture will eventually disappear," he said.

But workers themselves are not holding their breath.

Shin acknowledged the situation in his electronics company was much improved. But to further reduce pointless overtime, it should actively take part in the government's drive, he said.

Jeon, a 25-year-old trading company staffer, said overtime was definitely not positive. "But I have work flooding in and it doesn't just go away." ◦