Beautiful and ugly statistics
Positive economic data made Koreans feel pride in the past. However, these days the international praise of Korea’s shiny economic achievements makes many of them feel a sense of alienation and disillusionment.
Many locals believe the rising international ranking of Korea’s economy is not their story. They are now sick and tired of chaebol-led growth, from which benefits seldom trickle down into their pockets.
Despite the bright macro-data, the real jobless rate is high, at least by Korean standard. Many small-and medium-sized companies are struggling. Mom-and-pop shops rise and fall as many retiring baby boomers open them and then go bankrupt. Household debt has approached explosive levels, owing to protracted stagnation in the property market.
Income polarization has been growing and the population is aging fast. By 2030, one out of every four Koreans will be aged 65 or above. Many Black Swan events hang over the economy amid the eurozone crisis and ahead of the presidential election.
In fact, Korea should be the envy of the world if the economic data was the story of ordinary people.
Korea is now the fourth largest economy in Asia and the 12th in the world. Its annual trade surpassed $1 trillion last year, making the country the seventh largest exporter worldwide. It has joined the so-called 20-50 Club, becoming one of the seven countries in the world with per capita income of more than $20,000 with a population of 50 million. It is the only Asian country which has signed free trade agreements with the world’s two largest economies _ the EU and the US. Fourteen Korean companies, including Samsung, were among Fortune’s 500 large industrial corporations in the world last year.
It has already overtaken France in overall R&D spending, becoming the world’s fifth largest spender
The country boasts of the world’s highest scientific and second highest mathematical literacy in the recent ranking of the OECD Program for International Student Assessment.
It had the fourth largest number of patents in force worldwide after Japan, the United States and China as of 2010. Korea ranked top in the OECD IT trade surplus, and has had the highest proportion of users of high speed Internet access in the world since 2001. It has had the fastest average Internet connections with a nationwide 100 Mbps fiber-optic network. Samsung and Toyota are the only two companies in Asia that netted more than $10 billion in profit in 2006.
Korea began a TV-on-your-palm service for the first time in the world by using digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB) technology; the DMB has become the standard for mobile broadcasting in Europe. The country is the originator of wireless broadband and mobile broadband (WiBro) services. Many countries, including Italy and Venezuela, have decided to use this technology.
Hyundai-Kia Motor Group became the No. 5 producer of cars in 2011.
Twenty-one nuclear power stations in Korea have the best safety record in the world.
Korean women won 42 percent of LPGA championships in 2009; and the country had the fifth highest in medal tally at the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010. PyeongChang will host the winter Olympics in 2018. Daegu hosted the International Association of Athletics Federation championships in 2011.
The Summer and Winter Olympics, the World Cup and the IAAF Championships are the big four grand slam sports events. Only France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Japan had hosted them. Even America and Britain have yet to do so.
The country was No. 2 in 2004 in an Edinburgh University study of intelligent quotients, and No. 3 in 2010 in a survey of the test designer Paul Coojimans.
CIS bloc countries use Korea’s rags-to-riches story as a textbook.
Despite such beautiful and prideful statistics, Korea has also many ugly statistics. The nation lags behind other countries in many non-economic sectors although it outperforms the world in exports, growth, sports and culture.
Korea is still an exporter of orphans. It is allegedly the only OECD country where girls go abroad for prostitution. It is arguably one of the few countries where hymen reconstruction surgery is possible to give the appearance of virginity. Korea is the No. 1 in plastic surgery and per capita consumption of cosmetics in Asia. It has the highest suicide rate in the OECD, the second highest divorce rate and ranks bottom (200th) in birthrates. Korea, Taiwan and Ukraine are the only three countries where physical clashes and swearing of lawmakers get the occasional international media spotlight. Korea had the highest number of road accidents among OECD countries in 2010.
It ranked 24th on the OECD happiness index; and the nation is 43rd on the corruption index.
An OECD report shows that Korea’s economy will surge to the 4 percent growth range if it reduces corruption.
The time has come for policymakers to implement microeconomic programs that will make people happy, not crow on macroeconomic data that is only pleasing to chaebol. The bright economic data is the story of the past. The OECD warns that Korea will see its potential growth rate nosedive to the 1 percent range in two decades, partly owing to the fast aging of the population.
Instead of boasting of what they have achieved so far, Koreans need to pay attentions to what they will do and what non-Koreans think of Korea. This will help upgrade the image of both Korea and Koreans.
Lee Chang-sup is the executive managing director of The Korea Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.