Korea: Asia's Next Revolution

South's 'Miracle' Built on Hard Work; Low-Paid Labor Drives Boom

By John Burgess
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 18, 1986

Second in a series of three articles.

SEOUL -- "We have a quota. We fill it." Kim Jom Sook, 24, an industrial seamstress, can't spare much time to explain why she works so hard. The minute or so she has given to visitors at her sewing machine at Seoul's Jin Lee Garments Manufacturing Co. already has put her behind in the 10-hour wind sprint that for blue-collar South Korea is a common working day.

Fingers flying, Kim makes silk neck sections, 200 of them per shift. In the room around her, 120 men and women sew, cut, fold and press with astonishing speed and precision. Out come stylish silk dresses and blouses for sale in American department stores such as Bloomingdale's and J.C. Penney.

"They don't drink coffee; they don't smoke," company president Lee Tae Bok said approvingly, gazing over the room.

It is in places like this that the "economic miracle" of South Korea is rooted. When the mettle of people like seamstress Kim is seen firsthand, it all seems rather simple: South Koreans work as if their lives depend on it. They live in spartan company dormitories. They commute standing up on jammed buses. They labor long hours with one day off a week. It was all for an average $70 a week in factories in 1985, government figures show.

However hard things are, they are easier than they were. Twenty-five years ago, South Korea was a world-pitied pauper. Today it is racing headlong toward industrial affluence. Gross national product per person was $82 in 1961; it is about $2,000 now, putting it below Japan and Singapore but still ahead of other Asian countries. Last year South Korea exported goods worth $30 billion, meaning, by some counts, that it is already the world's 12th largest trading nation.

South Korea boasts automobile production lines with robot welders, dust-free labs churning out advanced computer chips and a steel plant that has been rated the world's most efficient. But it is operations like Jin Lee, which means "double progress," that are more representative of the whole: lots of people, little technology, no waste.

The changes wrought by the "economic miracle" on South Korean society are hard to fathom. In a single generation, a nation of farmers has become a nation of industrial workers; about 70 percent of the 40 million South Koreans now live in urban areas. Seoul has ballooned into the world's fourth-largest city. Many of the ills of runaway capitalism have appeared -- pollution, sweatshops and strong antiunionism -- but few South Koreans would turn back the clock.

Delegations from other developing countries often come to Seoul hoping to tap the secret of success. No single explanation suffices. But often cited are Confucian discipline; shrewd, often ruthless government controls; good education and a martial mood honed by continuing confrontation with North Korea, which the south fought inconclusively in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The Koreans have a word, koseng, often translated as "hard times." It might be a company's year of low sales, a politician's term in jail, or a minister's struggle to build a new church. It is something everyone experiences and overcomes, extracting a grim kind of pleasure along the way.

Take Anh U Su, 22, an unmarried spray-painter who works 11 hours a day, six days a week in a factory outside Seoul that makes plastic tables.

Anh finds his life trying but not intolerable. "If I work as hard as I can," he says, "the company will grow and my wages will grow, too." He occasionally gets stomach pains from inhaling the paint, but he presses on.

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company