Asia's Broken Lives
Economic Crisis Steals Christmas
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 25, 1998; Page A01
Part of an occasional series
SEOUL, Dec. 25 (Friday)"This is our Christmas tree," said Kim Myung Yun, waving a hand at a dozen balloons and a few golden bells and baubles taped to his kitchen ceiling, and a small poinsettia wrapped in red garland. "We used to have a real tree, but not this year."
Alone at his kitchen table on Christmas Eve, Kim drank a can of tea while he waited for his wife to come home from work. His two daughters, ages 12 and 9, played quietly in their bedroom. In past years, Christmas morning has meant laughter and big doll houses and plentiful gifts under the tree. This year, it will mean a scarf for each of the girls and too much time to think for their unemployed father.
"Right now, the only thing on my mind is that I have to get a job," Kim said. "I really don't have any room to think about anything else. It's really embarrassing for me to face my children and my wife. It just seems like they're looking at me in a different way, and it hurts. Maybe next Christmas will be better."
Kim started this year as an insurance executive making $40,000 a year, then became a street vendor selling hats when he, like nearly 2 million South Koreans in the past year, lost his job to an Asian financial crisis that has robbed jobs, futures, happiness -- and has all but stolen Christmas.
Despite signs that the economy may be improving, there is desperation among South Korea's masses of newly unemployed, and those who fear losing their jobs as the unemployment rate continues to climb. This month, a Seoul shopkeeper was found in a bloody heap with his feet hacked off with an ax; he later admitted arranging his own mutilation to collect on a $1.5 million insurance policy. That was extreme but not unprecedented: Earlier this year, a man admitted cutting off his son's finger to collect on insurance.
In the month since The Washington Post chronicled the plight of the Kims, things have only gotten tougher for the family members, who neither asked for nor expected donations when this interview began. Kim's $750-a-month unemployment benefit, the family's sole source of income along with profits from his wife's small beauty parlor, ran out with a final payment on Wednesday.
Kim, 39, said more than half of the unemployment benefit was going toward interest payments on his outstanding loans. If he can't make the payments, he said, he might have to move his family out of their small home to use their $35,000 rental deposit to settle his debts. The family would have to move to a cheaper place in the countryside, where jobs are even more scarce.
Kim has given up his hat business as an unprofitable failure; it often netted him less than $1 for a 16-hour workday. In more than two months of selling hats on the curbside, Kim earned about $300 -- far short of what he needs to feed his family and educate his children, including violin lessons for Eun Joo, 12, who has shown great promise as a musician.
Eun Joo's lessons cost about $460 a month, and the family has fallen two months behind on the payments. The teacher allows Eun Joo to continue her lessons despite the debt, but her parents worry that such charity won't last forever.
Hoping to find something more lucrative than hats, Kim said, he sent out another round of resumes to insurance companies -- but he knows that his chances of landing a job are no better than those of hundreds of thousands of other unemployed white-collar workers.
Kim is taking a week-long computer course for the unemployed to make himself more attractive to potential employers. And next month he will attend a two-week seminar aimed at keeping out-of-work insurance workers up on changes in the industry, just in case a job opens up.
One of the largest trade union groups in South Korea is also working on a plan to join the forces of farmers and unemployed workers by hiring the jobless to sell fresh farm produce on the streets of Seoul. Kim said the plan is still just an idea, but he hopes that by spring, he may have a job selling fruits and vegetables.
"I don't think I'll ever find a job like my old one, even if the economy gets better," he said. "I think what I need to do is find something I can do with my own two hands."
In the meantime, for a week earlier this month, Kim found himself at what he considered rock bottom: working as a paperboy. He was offered a job working a motorcycle delivery route from 2 a.m. until 7 a.m., earning about $25 a day for delivering 270 newspapers. But after one week of training, he found he was terrible at driving the motorcycle and he couldn't remember where all the papers were supposed to go. Kim didn't earn any money for his week's trouble, but he was reminded of something he said he should have known already.
"The man who was training me took each paper out, folded it and put it where it was supposed to go; I would have just thrown it from the motorcycle," Kim said. "He took a lot of pride in his work, in a job that I and a lot of other people think is very low work. I realized that any job is valuable. No matter how worthless it seems to someone else, it's the most important thing in the world to the person doing it."
Kim's wife, Moon Mi Ya, worked well into the evening on Christmas Eve at her Noel Beauty Salon. In most Asian nations, where only a small part of the population is Christian, Christmas is just another working day. But in South Korea, where Christians make up a quarter or more of the population, the birthday of Jesus Christ is an official holiday, and Moon's shop was busy with people getting their Christmas trims.
Sitting at a table in the corner, Moon, 39, said that Christmas has taken on new significance after the disastrous year her family has endured.
"The real meaning of Christmas is love, and I feel that much more strongly now than ever before," she said. "In difficult times, I think people are more willing to show each other that they love one another."
The strain was showing more clearly on her face than it was a month ago. The end of her husband's unemployment check has hit hard, and the fatigue in her eyes reflected it.
Moon said that on the nights her husband left to deliver papers at 2 a.m., she couldn't sleep for the rest of the night, worrying about the psychological toll on him.
"A man has to do something to feel like a man, and if the enemy you're fighting is the same strength as you, you can fight. But if it's a lot bigger, you have to just walk away," she said. "This is such a big problem for my husband, there's nothing he can do.
"The only thing on my mind is to keep this beauty parlor going and educate my children," she said. "I can't be there for him the way an average wife is there for her husband. I haven't been able to help him emotionally and psychologically. He's beyond my reach."
For most of the day Thursday, Moon's children, Eun Joo and Eun Hae, 9, played in the shop. They picked a few ornaments off the shop's tree to bring home to tape to their kitchen ceiling, and they laughed and cut up with Moon and her assistants. Increasingly, Moon likes to keep her girls close by her side because she fears how the rough times are affecting them, especially at Christmas.
"We used to go out to eat at Christmas and there was always a festive mood," she said. "We had all kinds of delicious treats around the house. We'd fill the car trunk with presents and say, 'Go look in the car and see if Santa brought you anything.' Things were so different then."
This year, the girls will each get a fluffy scarf that plays the Macarena when squeezed. Moon plans to spend Christmas afternoon volunteering at a home for single mothers, giving free perms to women spending Christmas on their own. The girls will probably go to a park with their father.
Moon said Eun Joo has begun to question why she has to help out with chores at the beauty parlor when other children don't have to work.
"I tried to explain to her that we all have to stick together because things are so difficult," Moon said. "But I think Eun Joo is worried about her future. She's worried she won't be able to continue her musical career now that things are so unstable."
When Moon returned home, she was greeted by Eun Joo playing "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" on the piano. Then as Moon and Kim sliced vegetables for dinner, Eun Joo ran out to buy pizza -- a special Christmas Eve treat.
Over dinner of pizza, kimchi, rice and tofu soup, a visiting Washington Post reporter handed the Kims an envelope containing almost $4,000 in donations sent by people who read last month's story and wanted to help the family. Kim and Moon seemed startled as a pile of checks and $100 bills built up on the table before them.
The money won't get Kim a job or solve the family's problems, but it will help.
"This has given us confidence," Kim said, clutching the money and letters of encouragement. "We will do our best to raise our children well."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company