Is South Korea a capitalist country

South Korea is a strange country, where capitalism, socialism and communism blend and coexist. Our economic system is capitalist, our social structure is socialist, and our mindsets are communist. We adopt capitalism for our economic development, but strive for socialist welfare and demand equal distribution of wealth.

It is no wonder South Korea is called a land of contradictions. For instance, had it not been for the benefits of capitalism, Koreans would not have 

accomplished such outstanding economic prosperity. Yet, Koreans frequently condemn capitalism and big business corporations such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai as the root of all social evil and corruption. Paradoxically, however, they jump at the chance to work at these capitalist enterprises that they outwardly detest. Every year, thousands of young people apply for jobs at Samsung and beam with pride on being accepted.

By the same token, most Koreans detest the rich and privileged. Koreans mistake abhorring the rich and privileged for social justice. They assume that the rich are fundamentally corrupt people who accumulated wealth illegally. Naturally, they do not hesitate to criticize rich and powerful people openly. Ironically, however, while calling for economic equilibrium and equal society, Koreans secretly aspire to become rich and powerful themselves.

South Korea is now attempting to reform the public servants’ pension system. If reform is absolutely necessary for financial reasons, so be it. The problem is that the reform campaign resembles a ruthless witch-hunt. We unjustly condemn government pension beneficiaries as if they were impudent thieves who enjoy a luxurious post-retirement life at the taxpayer’s expense. This is far from the truth. The public servants’ pension system operates primarily on funds collected by deducting money from the government officials’ salaries each month. If a retired public servant receives a relatively high pension, it means that either he worked for the nation for a long time or that he contributed a larger sum to his pension fund every month.

Recently, a Korean newspaper carried an article condemning a retired public servant who has a full-time job now and still receives half of his monthly pension. Worse, he owns real estate as well. The article criticizes him as if he were an unpardonable criminal, and implies that he should not be given his monthly pension at all since he is working full time even after retirement.

Few Koreans seem to realize that the above-mentioned person is entitled to full pension even though he has a job because he legally earned his pension by working for a long time at his former job and because he pays income and other taxes at his new workplace.

Surely, it is against the Constitution to take away someone’s pension under any circumstances. When I told my American friends about this, they were appalled at such an outrageous atmosphere being prevalent in Korea. “A pension is a sacred thing that you earned by slogging your whole life,” they exclaimed. “No one can take it away from you. It has nothing to do with your new job or your real estate property. How could such a thing happen in a capitalist society? It is blatant robbery, for sure.”

Indeed, such a thing cannot happen in a capitalist society. But it is possible in Korea because our sentiment, perhaps unconsciously, strongly supports socialism and even communism. If we ask the government to regulate our personal property and redistribute wealth, we will unwittingly end up advocating communism and asking for a communist regime. But that would be the last thing we want to see happen in this country.

Perhaps, South Korea has adopted and practiced only the flaws of capitalism and socialism instead of their merits. That is why we are witnessing rampant materialism and mammonism in Korean society. And that is why, unlike socialist countries, our government does not give taxpayers benefits in the form of social welfare even after collecting heavy taxes. That is why we naively assume that taking away from the rich and giving it to the poor is social justice. But we should know that higher-salaried men pay a lot more taxes than others, and that there are other pressing social issues than simply providing free lunches at school.

Koreans have one distinctive undesirable habit. We tend to constantly compare ourselves to others. We cannot tolerate it if someone is richer or more privileged than us. The comparison makes us constantly unhappy. When it comes to a feeling of happiness, therefore, South Korea ranks the lowest among OECD countries. Perhaps we should learn from maxims such as “Know your place,” and “When a sparrow tries to walk like a crane, its groin muscles will rupture.” We will be able to live happily only when we stop comparing ourselves to others. Everybody has his or her own god-given talents. We do not need to be envious of others.

Watching our society, sometimes I wonder, “Is South Korea really a capitalist country?” 

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.