To judge by “Parasite” — Bong Joon-ho’s Golden Globe-winning portrait of three Seoul families thrown into queasy proximity by the country’s wealth divide — South Korea is an Asian version of Brazil or South Africa.
The poor in Bong’s black comedy are unable to escape the bottom of the heap — living in overcrowded basement apartments, or even further below ground. The wealthy enjoy a life of careless riches and open skies on Seoul’s hilly outskirts, cosseted by armies of staff whom they hold in thinly veiled contempt.
It’s a compelling vision and a neat fit with the “Korean Wave” that’s taken the country’s culture and industry global in recent decades. A fiercely unequal society feels like the natural home of oligarchic chaebol conglomerates like Samsung Group and Hyundai Group, as well as the sexy rich boys (also nicknamed chaebol) who feature so heavily in Korean television dramas. Korean pop music’s global breakthrough track was a satire of Seoul’s fancy Gangnam neighbourhood.
So much for the stereotype — but in truth, South Korea has done better than most other societies on earth in avoiding the inequality that so often plagues fast-growing economies. If there are losers from its economic model, they are more likely the young and old — and women, who suffer from the rich world’s worst gender inequality, than the middle-aged characters who dominate the ensemble cast of “Parasite”.
Numbers tell a different story
Take the “Gini” coefficient, the most commonly used index of inequality. On that measure, South Korea is east Asia’s most egalitarian society after tiny, poor Timor-Leste, according to World Bank’s figures. Only a handful of countries in western Europe come in with better scores, and the likes of France, the UK and Canada are all less equal.
Other measures paint a similar picture. Take the 1 per cent who inhabit tony neighbourhoods like Seoul’s Pyeongchang-dong. In the US, the 1 per cent account for about one-fifth of all income, rising to 28 per cent in Brazil. South Korea, at 12.2 per cent, is closer to western European levels.
The picture is even more striking if you widen the focus to the top and bottom fifths of the income distribution to get a broader picture of rich and poor, a measure that’s widely followed in South Korea itself. In South Africa, the top 20 per cent earn more than 28 times as much as the bottom 20 per cent, and even in the US the wealthiest quintile earn 9.4 times more than the poorest.
South Korea’s ratio of 5.3 is more egalitarian than Japan, the UK, Australia and Italy, and roughly in line with France and Germany.
But Koreans fret about it
Why, then, are South Koreans so worried about inequality? Three-quarters of adults younger than 35 and two-thirds of those between 35 and 60 want to leave the country and similar shares of the population regard South Korea as “hell”, according to a survey last month.
President Moon Jae-in came to office in 2017 promising to close the country’s wealth gap by raising the minimum wage and retirement payments and reining in property prices.
One issue is that we measure our satisfaction not by where we are, but by where we’ve come from and where we’re going. South Korea went from poverty to affluence in the space of a generation, but growth increasingly appears to be grinding to a halt. That’s leaving many people terrified about what’s coming next.
Aged have a problem
In contrast to decent inequality metrics for the population as a whole, the old in particular have lost out. Just 13 per cent of Korea’s working-age population are living in poverty, but the figure rises to 44 per cent for those aged 66 or over, far higher than any other OECD country. The young, meanwhile, have largely given up hope of ever affording their own home. Buying property in Seoul takes about 13.4 years’ worth of income, compared with 5.7 times in New York and 4.8 times in even Tokyo. As a share of GDP, household debt is now higher than in the UK, US, or Japan.
South Korea isn’t without economic problems — but it’s the inequality suffered by young and old, and by women, that’s most at risk of holding the country back. The luckiest generation are those who were born in the 1960s and early 1970s when the war and desperation of the 1950s was already past; joined the job market in the 1980s, when the economy was growing at double-digit rates; and bought houses dirt-cheap in the wake of the 1998 Asian financial crisis before subsequent generations were priced out.