Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The rise of South Korea and lessons for Canada
By Thomas Klassen

A Korean wave is sweeping the world. The secretary-general of the United Nations is Korean, the head of the World Bank is a Korean-American. “Gangnam Style,” a song by the Korean rapper Psy, has become the most watched video on YouTube.

In the past decade Korean companies, Samsung, LG, Hyundai and others, have become household names across the globe. The epic battle between Apple and Samsung for dominance in mobile devices is testament that Korean companies stand second to none. In Ontario, Samsung and the Korea Electric Power Corp. are spending more than $3 billion to build wind and solar energy plants.

The success of Korea is particularly astounding since until the 1960s the nation was dirt poor, having suffered a brutal period of Japanese colonization followed by the devastation of the Korean War. Until five years ago, Canada’s GDP was greater than Korea’s. Now Korea outpaces Canada and the gap grows each year.

What are the lessons for Canada from Korea’s rapid rise on the world stage?

First, that post-secondary education is the main driver of success in the global marketplace. Knowledge, both theoretical and applied, is essential in designing and manufacturing cars, supertankers, mobile phones, and making movies and videos. That many Koreans are willing and able to learn English and study overseas, allows them to access the world markets, be it in science, diplomacy or business.

The achievements of Korea are the direct result of a skilled workforce, as the country lacks natural resources and has no sources of energy. Canada, blessed with a land mass 100 times that of South Korea, and abundant natural resources, fails to prioritize education. That Canada has no national post-secondary education department or strategy is incomprehensible to all international observers.
If there was ever an argument for constitutional reform in Canada, it is surely to grant the federal government a role in ensuring that the nation’s universities, colleges and private vocational schools operate in a strategic manner in a knowledge economy.

The second lesson for Canada is that government strategy and support are essential for industries and individuals to compete, and succeed, internationally. A decade ago the Korean government made it a priority to strengthen the entertainment and cultural sector, after concluding that the nation could no longer compete in some manufacturing industries with lower-wage economies.

This decision marshalled government departments, from education to foreign affairs to finance, to increase national capacity in this sector of the economy. The results are only now becoming apparent, as shown by the sensation of “Gangnam Style.” In its successful bid for the for the 2018 Winter Olympics, government, business and other groups worked together for more two decades, and through two failed bids.

The last lesson that Canadians can learn from Korea is that success depends on reacting quickly to developments. Twenty years ago, when China opened its doors to the outside, Korean firms were the first to take advantage from a billion more customers.

Korean manufacturers responded swiftly by sending their staff to China to supervise the newly opened plants. Korean students embraced learning Mandarin, in addition to English. In contrast, Japanese and other firms were hesitant, waiting to see if China would truly adopt a market economy. Not surprisingly, the firms moving first and fast obtained the best market share.

In the past two years, Korea has signed and implemented free trade agreements with the U.S. and the 27 countries of the European Union. Canada, on the other hand, in the past 10 years, managed to implemented free trade agreements with Colombia, Iceland, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Norway, Peru and Switzerland. These countries represent so little of Canada’s annual trade that the total dollar amount is a rounding error.

Canada, after more than a decade of negotiations, is still uncertain if it wishes to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, India, Korea or any major economy. Watching from the sidelines is not a good strategy in the fast-moving moving global economy.

As Canadians become more and more enticed to spend money on Korean goods and services, they might well consider that if a dirt poor country can become rich in 50 years, could not a wealthy country become poor in the next 50?

Thomas Klassen is an associate professor of political science at York University. He has lived, and taught at universities, in Korea and written extensively about the country.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

South Korea Prepares the Young for a Rapidly Aging Population

At a clean and sunny community center in Seoul, the South Korean capital, senior citizens make clay models of their own faces in an arts class. Some of the faces are vivid and lifelike. Others are expressionless and indistinct. The project is intended to help the seniors remember what they look like.
This is the Gangseo District Center for Dementia. Since 2006, Seoul has opened a dementia center in each of the city's 25 urban districts.
It's one of the novel approaches that South Korea has developed to cope with an epidemic of dementia. Recent data suggest that South Korea is now the fastest-aging country on Earth.
By some estimates, nearly 40 percent of Koreans will be 65 years old or older by midcentury. In a sense, the country is suffering from its rapid development, which has been accompanied by soaring life expectancy and plummeting birth rates.
The Gangseo center provides sports and music classes, with the aim of giving dementia patients a sense of participation and accomplishment, as well as some physical and cognitive exercise.
The centers also help to ease the burden and isolation of family members like Jeon Om-ryul. Her husband was diagnosed with dementia, and she has been bringing him to the center every week for the past two years.
"This is my biggest worry," she says. "For 12 years, I raised my granddaughter, until my husband got sick. Now I take care of him. I've never had the energy to think of myself. Whenever I think of what will happen to me, all I can do is cry. I wonder who will take care of me. I fear that only the government can."
In 2011, Korea passed a dementia management law, establishing the centers and mandating that citizens older than 65 be checked for dementia symptoms.
Social worker Kim Dong-hun says the most fulfilling part of his job at the center is helping the patients to imbue their activities with purpose and meaning. But he says the social stigma associated with dementia makes it hard to reach out to patients.
"We publicize our programs intensively, but one of the biggest challenges we face is that many people still have not changed their attitude toward dementia," Kim says. "Even if you go to their house to find them, they don't want to come out."
Sung Mi-ra, secretary-general of the Seoul Metropolitan Center for Dementia, which coordinates the 25 community-level centers, estimates that South Korea currently has about 530,000 dementia patients, out of a total population of 50 million. This number has risen 27 percent in the past four years. She estimates there will be 1 million patients by 2025.
She says dementia costs South Korea the equivalent of $8 billion a year in hospital fees and lost income, and that figure will double every decade. Sung says South Koreans need to start seeing dementia as a disease.
"In past, whenever someone got dementia, it was treated as a natural occurrence," Sung says. " 'If you get old, you lose your mind,' went a common saying. Nobody treated this condition because people believed that's just the way it is."
Compared with other developed countries, very few elderly South Koreans live in nursing homes. Confucian attitudes about filial piety are still prevalent here, and while they are less common now, many families still have three or more generations living in one home.

Sung says South Korea's approach to aging assumes that family members — not the government — will provide most of the care to the elderly.

"Institutionalizing a demented parent is seen as unfilial," she explains. "For this reason, dementia patients should be living at home with their families. So what is important is that the community creates an environment where this is possible. This is why centers like ours are being established around the country."

Another hallmark of South Korea's approach is to train young people to empathize with the elderly, and prepare for their own senescence.

At a gleaming glass and steel community center called the Seongnam Senior Complex in Seoul's southern suburbs, students giggle as their classmate Kim Dong-hyun plays the role of a bedridden senior who is hoisted from his bed into a chair using a winch and sling.

The students are wearing sandbags to weigh down their limbs, back braces that force them to stoop, and glasses that impair their vision. Kim says he's still mulling over the implications of his training.

"I am worried about the aging of our society," he says. "We need to get ready. I'm not sure what I personally can do to get ready. ... Have a lot of children to take care of me in my old age, I guess."

In another class, the students put on 3-D glasses to mimic the effects of dementia. The class instructor says the training inspires some students to reconsider how they treat their elders. Others, though, say it simply makes them dread the thought of growing old.


Friday, January 04, 2013

South Korea’s new president: Plenty on her plate


PARK GEUN-HYE’S campaign advertising described her as a “prepared female president”. Having narrowly defeated the Democratic United Party (DUP) candidate, Moon Jae-in, on December 19th, two-thirds of her slogan will be realised with her inauguration on February 25th. The “prepared” part, however, is less clear.

South Korean presidents-elect appoint transition teams to help smooth their way into office and many of their members then take up posts in the new government. With her appointments, Ms Park seems to be trying to bridge the political divide. Her transitional team, consisting of nine subcommittees, is headed by Kim Yong-joon, a former head of South Korea’s Constitutional Court.

The rallying cry of the election was “economic democratisation”, a fluffy term that has two main strands, both of which Ms Park seems to be sticking to. The first is to counter the vast (and increasingly unpopular) power of families that run the chaebol, South Korea’s huge conglomerates.

Ms Park’s party is historically pro-chaebol. Her father set up the system that enabled them to flourish with governmental support. But she has promised a tougher line, notably on the system of cross-holdings that permit control of a conglomerate with only a small amount of capital.

At a meeting on December 26th with the Federation of Korean Industries, a chaebol lobby group, Ms Park emphasised jobs over profit maximisation. She has also pledged to be tougher on crooked behaviour. In the past decade three chairmen of the largest five chaebol have received presidential pardons following convictions for offences such as fraud and tax evasion. If she sticks to her word, this will stop.

The second strand is the expansion of the welfare state. Ms Park promises to provide free child care for under-fives, and to subsidise social security contributions and university-tuition fees for the poor.

On January 1st the national assembly approved 2.4 trillion won ($2.3 billion) of extra welfare spending to pay for all this, as part of the “Park Geun-hye budget”. Old conservatives like the outgoing finance minister, Bahk Jae-wan, have long grumbled about the populism of such measures.

A dangerous neighbourhood
Although Ms Park has undoubtedly shifted her party on domestic issues, foreign policy is unlikely to change much from that of outgoing president, Lee Myung-bak. Ms Park speaks some Chinese and will want to overcome the strains caused by China’s insistence on sending North Korean refugees back home rather than to South Korea, as well as the incursion of Chinese fishing boats into South Korean waters. But relations with America are strong and she will not want to risk them merely to please China. On December 24th, the Obama administration offered South Korea four advanced spy drones.

America’s expansion of its missile-defence programme in Asia raises Chinese concerns about containment. Some analysts say this will make Beijing see South Korea’s alliance with America as part of a wider anti-China strategy, rather than one merely directed at North Korea. There could be problems ahead, regardless of the fluency of Ms Park’s Chinese.

American officials hope Ms Park can repair damaged ties with their other main regional partner, Japan. South Koreans remain angry about colonial-era sex slavery, and the ownership dispute over the Dokdo islands (known as Takeshima in Japan), visited by President Lee in August. Ms Park’s father once served in the Japanese imperial army that occupied northeast China, making it politically impossible for her to show too much kindness to Japan.

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s new premier, sent envoys to meet Ms Park on January 4th in an attempt to ease the tension, but the South Korean press has been working itself into a frenzy over Mr Abe’s strident nationalism. His big majority gives him leeway to be diplomatic, but any move to rescind a 1995 apology for wartime suffering his country caused would be disastrous for the bilateral relationship.

Then there is North Korea. Ms Park has based her approach on reciprocity, pitched halfway between the “sunshine” policy of former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, and the frostiness of Mr Lee. She says she will start with small economic projects and humanitarian aid, and engage further if the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, chooses diplomacy with the South. She calls it “trustpolitik”.

On January 1st Mr Kim gave the first new year’s speech by a North Korean leader for 19 years, calling for an end to confrontation. But, although the style may mark a change, his demand for the implementation of old sunshine-era agreements is likely to leave Ms Park unmoved. Experience shows that one of the few things North Korea can be trusted to do is to continue developing nuclear weapons. Mr Kim may well test a device soon. Ms Park will need to be prepared.