As an English conversation teacher, I have spent most of the past year discussing everything from K-pop to politics to history to relationships with Koreans young and old. In that time I have learned about many supremely interesting aspects of Korean culture and why it is the way it is. There are many things that I like about Korea—public transportation, safety, and friendliness among them. Reflecting on what I’ve learned, however, I realized that my strongest feeling for Korea is admiration, an admiration encapsulated by an event which most Koreans would probably rather forget: the foreign exchange crisis of 1997. It is said that hardship reveals the true nature of a person; perhaps the same holds true for nations.
In 1997 Korea was a country on the rise. Having recently ascended to the 11th
largest economy in the world and per capita GDP climbing above $10,000 for the first time, it was practically indistinguishable from the war-torn wasteland of just over 40 years before. Seoul was emerging as one of the business hubs of East Asia and, with an unemployment rate of only 2 percent, any Korean that wanted a job could get one. Referred to by former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan as a “symbol of Asia’s remarkable growth,” Korea seemingly had nowhere to go but up.
All Koreans over the age of 20 remember what happened next: due to a variety of causes, both internal and external, that are too complex to get into here, Korea was swept up in the East Asian Financial Crisis. Thousands of businesses went bankrupt or initiated enormous layoffs, in some cases thousands of employees per day. Businessmen, ashamed to tell their families they had been laid off, dressed for work and spent their days wandering around parks.
Up to this point the tale is familiar; indeed, many in the past few years have experienced something not dissimilar to what Koreans underwent in the late 1990s. But what happens next is simply remarkable. As we have witnessed in Greece, the United States, Spain, and countless other places, economic crises tend to lead to civil unrest and increased anger towards the establishment. Not in Korea. Instead of turning on their government and major companies, Koreans banded together. Unions and corporations agreed on new labor laws to aid the climb out of bankruptcy, even at the expense of worker rights and potential profit. But the most amazing event to me is the gold drive, where Koreans lined up to donate their possessions to the payment of Korea’s debt. Stop and think about that for a moment. Wedding rings, expensive jewelry, family heirlooms… all sacrificed by Koreans for the good of their nation.
Thanks to the efforts and cooperation of its people, Korea was able to pay off its IMF debt three years ahead of schedule and continue their rapid ascension up the international economic ladder. It’s the same attitude (known in Korea as bali-bali—quickly, quickly) that allowed one of the poorest countries in the world in 1950 to become the technological and industrial powerhouse of the present day. That Korea is where it is now is a tribute to the capacity of its people for hard work and perseverance against tremendous odds. There has never been a story like it in the history of civilization, and my admiration and respect for their efforts knows no bounds.
Are there negatives to this attitude? Of course. When my students and I weren’t discussing K-pop, politics, history, or relationships we were talking about the dangerously high stress level and absurdly long hours of Korean education and work cultures. Suicide rates are the highest in the world. Korea ranks 31st of 32 OECD countries in happiness. There are a bevy of serious problems caused by the bali-bali mindset. But it’s a lot easier to solve social issues with a full stomach and a roof over your head, and given their recent history, I wouldn’t be surprised if in 15 years we were talking about Korea as the happiest country in the world. I know I won’t be betting against them.