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S. Koreans Abuzz Over Their Obsession With the Office

Ban Ki-moon, above, the South Korea-born leader of the United Nations, shown with Gen. Martin Agwai of the African Union force, is celebrated in the Seoul press as a workaholic. Hwang Woo-suk, below, who says he is a pioneer in the field of cloning, is likewise described as a human dynamo.
Ban Ki-moon, above, the South Korea-born leader of the United Nations, shown with Gen. Martin Agwai of the African Union force, is celebrated in the Seoul press as a workaholic. Hwang Woo-suk, below, who says he is a pioneer in the field of cloning, is likewise described as a human dynamo. (Pool Photo By Zohra Bensemra)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 10, 2008

What makes local news in the rest of the world? What do people debate, celebrate, worry about and condemn from day to day? Headlines, a feature to appear in the newspaper and at www.washingtonpost.com/world, will offer a regular window on communities, their values and their obsessions.

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SEOUL - South Koreans are working up a lather over working too much.

They put in far more time on the job than citizens of any other free-market democracy. Compared to Americans, they average 560 more hours at work a year -- the equivalent of 70 more eight-hour days. And that is down significantly from the go-go 1990s.

These numbers come from the 2008 Factbook of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of 30 developed countries. And they have been bouncing around in the hyperactive local media for several weeks.

For South Koreans, the numbers are yet another reminder that when it comes to kicking back and taking it easy, many of them don't have a clue.

In the OECD, they rank second to last in leisure spending, first in suicide and last in bearing children.

Despite the dearth of children, South Korea leads the OECD in per capita spending on private education, which often includes home tutors, after-school cram sessions and intensive English-language courses.

It's not that they don't see what they are doing to themselves. In a nationwide poll last year, two-thirds of South Koreans admitted to being workaholics.

Their most famous role models, it seems, work even more.

The Korean-born secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, is routinely and approvingly described in the local media as a workaholic.

So is the Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk, who asserts that he is a pioneer in cloning.

Kim Jong Il, the Stalinist leader of North Korea, is hardly a role model in the South. But he says he behaves like one, when it comes to work.

"Staying up all night is my habit," Kim told a North Korean newspaper last year. "This is the prime time to work."

Not everyone is impressed with the Korean Peninsula's great gusher of elbow grease.

The hardest-working people in the OECD rank just 23rd when it comes to making money, as many newspaper pundits here have noted. The per capita annual income here is $23,038, well below the OECD average of $31,468.

A columnist for the Hankyoreh newspaper scolded his countrymen this month for their self-destructive lack of sloth.

He noted that parents and children spend far too many hours each day at work or in school, only to come home and spend far too many hours noodling around on the Internet.

South Korea ranks first among OECD countries in home Internet access, at 94 percent.

"Raising children when you lead a compulsive, nervous and empty life is a problem," wrote columnist Kim Young-hwan, who also works for the Korea Human Rights Foundation. "As much as adults are drowning in work, they are drowning their children in education."

South Korean politicians, however, seem to know better than to say discouraging words when it comes to work.

A case in point is the workaholic self-made millionaire businessman who late last year was elected president of South Korea.

Lee Myung-bak, known as "the Bulldozer," ran a campaign based on his rags-to-riches biography and a promise that he could make all South Koreans significantly richer.

In his inaugural address, Lee explained what was necessary: Young people need to work harder, teachers need to work harder and workers need to work harder.

Lee, by the way, won his election by the largest margin since South Korea became a democracy.


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