For President Lee Myung-bak, this is more than a passing problem, because middle-class economic concerns and a string of frauds and scandals have convinced South Koreans that theirs is anything but the “fair society” that he has touted.
Some South Koreans, Lee included, describe fairness as a prerequisite for reaching democratic maturity. But the value also contradicts the winner-take-all ethos that drove the country’s postwar boom, with the emergence of dominant conglomerates, an ultra-competitive education system and few social safety nets to help the non-elite.
In a fair society, Lee said, “the winner does not take all.”
The push for fairness has generated some unconventional test cases. Several months ago, Lotte Mart, a department store conglomerate, began selling buckets of fried chicken — so cheap that they sold out daily within hours. But small and medium-size chicken shacks couldn’t compete with those prices and protested the unfairness of it all. After five days, Lotte Mart surrendered, saying it would no longer offer cheap chicken, in deference to societal ideals.
But in the year since Lee’s fair-society speech, South Koreans have come to see fairness as an elusive ideal. While food prices and college tuitions rise, the bottom 20 percent of the population has seen its income plummet 35 percent in the past decade. As Seoul booms, far-flung provinces complain of neglect and struggle to attract businesses. Although the country’s growth was powered by tiger-strong “chaebols” — family-controlled firms such as Hyundai and Samsung — these corporations squeeze the middle- and small-size companies to whom they subcontract.
“In Korea, the strong people get everything,” said Kwak Seung-jun, chairman of a council that advises the president. “We are used to competition. . . . Right now, big companies are eating smaller companies.”
Lee’s advisers envision a process of growth by cooperation: The elites give more and gain social responsibility, the benefits trickle down, and South Korea becomes a more advanced nation. But all the while, Lee’s administration has been troubled by inveterate corruption, with illicit favors and bribery undermining the justice system, financial regulation and major business deals.
Some government ministries have lately tried to chip away at corruption by limiting or banning pricey dinners or golf rounds with associates. In a radio address this month, Lee said that corruption remains “rampant” in many parts of society. Some experts suggest that such corruption is the legacy of South Korea’s quick political transformation, as the country rose to power as an authoritarian state in the 1960s and 1970s, then formally transitioned to democracy in 1987.