Beneath South Korea’s prosperity, there are latent elements for social unrest that could have significant economic and political consequences in the next national elections and possibly prior to then.
Potent mix: Jasmine, beef and reform
The catalyst for massive civil unrest need not be rational or fact based. Rumors and weird allegations can travel at Internet speed.
Korea JoongAng Daily
March 07, 2011
As North Africa’s Jasmine Revolutions evolved, other nations’ elite have reflected on the likelihood of a similar movement spreading to their countries. For example, China and North Korea have been nervously monitoring the events. And, one needs not look any further than Seoul to grasp what all of this means.
The Jasmine Revolution has largely been the result of misrule by autocrats with the rise of a large, educated, underemployed youth demographic equipped with Internet-based tools, notably Facebook and Twitter as well as e-mail and blogs. The old communication paradigm of one-to-many has been breaking down for over a decade, being replaced with many-to-many messaging. Old oligarchs largely failed to realize their traditional top-down hierarchical social orders were crumbling while being attacked by swarms of largely democratic idealists.
In an early phase, we can say we first witnessed this phenomenon in South Korea during the presidential campaign of Roh Moo-hyun, who rose from relative obscurity to the Blue House by taking advantage of Internet-based media and organizing. And in case anyone had not quite appreciated where this paradigm shift was taking us, the weird and populist anti-mad cow demonstrations of three years ago were driven by cell phone text messaging, starting with high school students and later co-opted by opposition politicians. Only then did many observers appreciate what swarm communications can do to disrupt a nation through social protest.
The anti-mad cow demonstrations had very little to do with public health. The protests were largely what Americans called “be ins” in the 1960’s. That is, demonstrations created opportunities for the masses to show up and express their disapproval of the existing political/social order.
If I learned anything from spending time walking among the anti-mad cow disease demonstrators, it is that most demonstrators were from the middle class and many were losing confidence that they would be able to stay within that economic stratum.
But is it fair to compare Korea and even China with North Africa? During this past month, we have seen corrupt dictatorships being overthrown by angry, under-employed youth in a genuine mass uprising – the very stuff that communist mythologies are based upon. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese and North Korean governments have done their best to keep the news from going viral among their citizens. To the contrary, South Koreans, who arguably make up East Asia’s most genuinely democratic nation, have followed the events in near real time.
But South Korea is not immune from the Jasmine Revolution trends.
Certainly the level of South Korean corruption pales to that of North Africa and the Republic’s mainland neighbors. The South Korean economy is doing better than most countries. And, of course, young South Koreans use cell phones and other Internet-related communication more aggressively than almost any population on the planet.
But all is not calm under the surface for this republic’s youth. Unemployment and under-employment are rampant among young college grads – consisting of an extremely high percentage of young people having graduated from secondary education.
At the same time, in spite of low overall inflation statistics, food and housing costs have been rapidly increasing. No matter what the government may do, it is certain that food costs will continue to climb due to environmental, political and financial factors outside of Korea’s control. But inattention to the costs of food and also housing could lead to a face-off between the wealthy and the underclass in the streets.
While those of the upper middle class and above may experience tighter budgets and perhaps dine out less due to increased rents, etc., the lower classes will have to make do with shrinking margins for survival. Of course, I’m speaking in relative terms for South Koreans as compared to North Koreans or most parts of Africa. But people anywhere who have become accustomed to relatively comfortable standards of living are likely to feel frustrated and angry as their physical comfort dips.
As we witnessed with the anti-mad cow disease demonstrations, the catalyst for massive civil unrest need not be rational or fact based. Rumors and weird allegations can travel at Internet speed.
In the best of circumstances, credible and transparent authorities are best equipped to counter cyber whirlwinds. Too often, however, elite and disconnected oligarchs are slow to recognize the real causes of unrest and tend to belatedly respond to the aftermath. Even benevolent economic schemes based on “trickle down” strategies too often end with the trickle being inadequate in velocity and volume.
As such, Korea’s business and political oligarchs need to communicate better with young people via social media. Both business and government sectors need to offer youth expanded opportunities for developing meaningful careers. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time until young Koreans may follow the Arab example.
South Korean political institutions are safe from mob rule. But current governments could unexpectedly, albeit democratically, fall, if meaningful reform is not directed to Korea’s youth.
*The writer is president of Soft Landing Consulting and vice president of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.