- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2023

SEOUL, South Korea — It was an extraordinary outburst by one of South Korea’s most famous sons.

“People in the West just don’t get it,” stormed Kim Nam-joon, 28, to Spanish daily El Pais when asked whether the notoriously intense training regimens for the stars of K-pop, the country’s world-conquering musical genre, were excessive.

“Just 70 years ago, there was nothing” in South Korea, Mr. Kim said, “but now the whole world is looking at Korea. How did that happen?”

Working hard, he said, punctuating his remark with an expletive, “is how you get things done!”

Mr. Kim is not a tough, hard-hatted laborer or a serious, besuited executive. Better known as “RM,” he is the frontman of the supergroup BTS, the face of millennial, moisturized South Korean cool. But his blood, sweat and tears work ethic may be putting him on the wrong side of a deep divide over work, values and how to address deeply worrying population trends.

The 28-year-old pop star sounds oddly old-school, reflecting a dying breed of South Korean: the economic warrior.

South Korea’s famous/notorious work culture is in the spotlight after the conservative government of President Yoon Suk Yeol on March 6 proposed expanding the allowable maximum working week from 52 hours (40 hours plus 12 hours of overtime) to 69 hours, or an average of slightly over 9.85 hours a day, seven days a week.

In a nation where those in the C suites agonize over rigid labor regulation, Mr. Yoon portrays the proposed increase as giving employees the option to work longer if they wish — hours they can take off later. He also wants to ease employment burdens on the mom-and-pop businesses that represent the bottom rung of this top-heavy economy: restaurants, educational “cram” schools, convenience stores, taxi services and the like.

The Korea Enterprise Federation and other small-business groups have welcomed the plan, but there is vocal opposition, including from labor unions.

The 52-hour cap was instituted just five years ago by President Moon Jae-in, whose opposition Democratic Party of Korea still controls the National Assembly.

“The age of growth by squeezing the people is now over,” thundered DPK leader Lee Jae-myung, who favors a 4½-day week.

In the face of the backlash and global headlines generated by the 69-hour proposal, Mr. Yoon backtracked slightly and ordered the Labor Ministry to consider the views of millennials as it weighed how to implement the change.

The plan remains on the table. Labor Ministry officials say they are tweaking the bill with the aim of presenting a final draft on April 12.

Only then will it be ready for the Assembly.

Economic surge, generational chasm

The debate and the popular pushback are measures of how far South Korean society has evolved. A 69-hour workweek would have been child’s play for workers in the last decades of the 20th century when they were transforming the country into an unlikely global economic powerhouse.

The prosperous, democratic, liberal South Korea of today is far distant from the poor, authoritarian, tough land of yore. After the devastation of the Korean War and lacking natural resources, the country turned to its people’s work ethic to lift it out of agrarian poverty. It was enough.

With government and business owners promoting a militaristic, ambitious, work-to-the-limit mindset, South Koreans forged what many consider an economic miracle, now ranked as the 13th largest economy in the world.

“The Koreans came up from nothing. … They worked 84 hours a week with no overtime for more than a decade,” Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger once noted. “At the same time, every little Korean came home from grade school and worked with a tutor for four or five hours … driven by these ‘tiger moms.’”

A 50-something Korean businessman who has taken over his late father’s company added another component: patriotism.

“My father’s generation were more patriotic,” the businessman said. “It was ‘You have to do this for the country. It’s a sacrifice,’ added to a ‘can-do’ spirit.”

After overcoming the trauma of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, South Korea surged economically. Today, it boasts global megabrands such as Samsung and Hyundai, sparkling high-tech infrastructure, and a globally admired popular culture.

“I consider the Koreans working from 1960 to 2000 the greatest generation: They lifted the country out of millennia of poverty,” said Michael Breen, author of “The New Koreans.” “But families and individuals did not necessarily benefit from macro success, as this was pursuit of national economic prowess, not pursuit of individual happiness.”

From economic warriors to cool Koreans

The “work-life balance” sought today is far removed from the experiences of parents and grandparents. The older generation had little opportunity for – or understanding of — leisure. Only after a five-day workweek was instituted in 2002 did the concept of leisure, and related services that cater to people with time on their hands, take off.

Still, youths have not got it all easy. Social pressures to conform and excel remain, as K-pop’s Mr. Kim attests.

Younger workers have also witnessed the evaporation of “jobs for life” formerly offered en masse by corporations. Because of slowing growth rates, economic plateauing and corporate offshoring, top-tier careers and guaranteed lifetime tenures for workers have grown scarce.

Young South Koreans mockingly talk of “Hell Joseon” (the name for a Korean dynasty) for their stressed lives and worry about the concept of “gwarosa” —“death from overworking.” South Korea has the highest suicide rate among all industrial nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Younger Koreans are giving up on bearing children, leaving Korea with the world’s lowest fertility rate — 0.78 children on average per woman — and a looming demographic crisis. The government has even pitched the 69-hour maximum workweek as, paradoxically, a way to give young couples more time to start families.

Labor Minister Lee Jung-sik sparked a backlash when he argued that the longer legal workweek would give workers the opportunity to build up overtime hours that they can bundle for later childbearing and child-rearing periods.

“We’ll introduce bold measures to help cut working hours during pregnancy or while raising children,” Mr. Lee said when asked whether the raise would help alleviate the fertility crisis.

Not everyone buys that argument. Some say longer workweeks will do nothing to address the population crisis.

“While men will work long hours and be exempt from care responsibilities and rights, women will have to do all the care work,” the Korean Women’s Associations United said in a statement protesting the proposed workweek changes.

Some see upsides to the changing South Korean attitudes toward work and leisure.

Venture capital, formerly the exclusive preserve of conglomerates, is now increasingly available for young entrepreneurs. Last year, South Korea hosted the world’s ninth-largest flock of so-called unicorns — startup companies valued at more than $1 billion before their first offering of public stock.

The surging gig economy and work-from-home trend spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns are further undercutting old-school practices.

“For my father’s generation, an individual did not need anything. It was unity. You were a small nail in a toolbox,” said the businessman.

“But that way of thinking will not work for my children’s generation. They want creativity and flexibility.”

New attitudes

They also want respect.

Managers formerly piled on work, kept staff late, demanded attendance at boozy, post-work bonding sessions, dictated vacation times and dished out angry criticism.

As work culture changed, gentler attitudes prevailed.

“The younger generation are more respectful of people’s time and more respectful that they have other pursuits in life — for example, family — than the older generation,” said Mr. Breen, who runs a public relations firm.

Work itself has become an option.

“With increasing welfare, you get a society where people who are unambitious will be taken care of,” Mr. Breen said. “This does not mean society will go down. You don’t need the entire society to be working on edge.”

The South Korean businessman, who has college-age sons, frets that today’s youths are better suited to the service sector than the manufacturing that remains the country’s economic bedrock.

“My sons can work out of bed on a laptop without having to be in an office or ever meeting a boss,” he said. “But this country is export-driven, and you need people on-site inputting time. As long as this economy exists, labor hours are needed. Not everything is Google and AI.”

• Andrew Salmon can be reached at asalmon@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide