By Korean or almost any country's standards, Kim Duk Choong should be counted as a member of the corporate elite.
A leading economist, he is president of Daewoo Industrial Co., Ltd., part of the Daewoo Group of companies that form one of South Korea's thriving conglomerates. His salary would give him a comfortable life in the United States and in Seoul it makes him a rich man.
But he takes pains to keep his affluence out of sight. He sends his children to public school. His family owns but one car. His clothes are unstylish and around the office he dresses in cheap slacks and a gray cotton jacket in the manner of a bank clerk.
"Look at these," he commands a visitor, pointing at this plain oxfords, a bit run down at the heels. "Four years old. Why buy new ones? They can be resoled for one dollar."
Kim's sensitivity about being thought rich tells a good deal about South Korean society in its new age of sudden wealth and dynamic growth. The economic revolution has spawned a social revolution, bringing to this once uniformly poor country its first modern upper class. Many are uncomfortable with it. The new money is wiping out Korea's egalitarian past, spreading class division and social unrest, splintering a society that, for all its terrible trials, once prided itself on a comfortable homogeneity.
A prominent journalist who was abroad during seven years of explosive growth returned to find everything radically changed. Money, he found, was all that anyone talked about. "It was a culture shock for me," the journalist recalls. "We used to settle things with decency and understanding. Now everything is settled with money."
There is also a pervasive suspicion that the new riches were attained by corrupt means. A prominent social scientist, Kim Hae Dong of Seoul National University, is completing a major public opinion poll which shows, he says, that "half of the people feel that most rich people are corrupt. It is a very dangerous kind of situation. They also think that rich people are living luxurious lives."
Until recently, South Korea had been, of necessity, one of the world's most egalitarian countries. There were no class divisions because there was only one class - the poor. The 35 years of Japanese occupation, which ended in 1945, wiped out an old aristocracy and land reforms after the Korean War finished the last of the farming barons. A few entrepeneurs flourished in the 1950s but there was no real upper class.
All that changed in the boom years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The South Korean economy has grown at an average rate of 10 per cent for 17 years. Huge corporations, aided by the government, have transformed South Korea into a major industrial power and have spawned hundreds of smaller industries.
For a decade, then, South Korea has been a get-rich-quick economy in which the clever could amass fortunes almost overnight. The Daewoo Group began as a small trading company in 1967 with a staff of seven and a capitalization of $18,000 saved up by Kim Duk Choong's brother. Last year it had 60,000 employes and did a $2 billion business selling everything from engines to electronics.
Some of the country's new fortunes are said to be immense. Lee Byung Chull, chairman of the Samsung Group, is somewhat atypical because he amassed his wealth early by salvaging and rebuilding businesses during the Korean War. By 1955, his family was rich and the boom years for Samsung - now grown to 27 companies - were still to come. Today, magazines report he is worth half a billion dollars.
But the riches have become in some ways an embarrassment. Lee is turning his luxurious estate south of Seoul into an agricultural experiment station and he declines to discuss his wealth.
"I hear this rumor that I'm worth a half a billion dollars," Lee said in a recent interview. "I don't know how that came about." In 1955, he split a $36 million fortune three ways - one third to his family, another third to a cultural foundation, another third to his employes' welfare fund. "So, then my family was worth $12 million," he said. "I don't know about now. I haven't made any calculation."
The assumption that many have become newly rich by corrupt means is widespread. Rumors swirl constantly about shady deals involving government favoritism and big business. Many South Koreans felt their darkest suspicions were confirmed this spring by what is now called "The Yulsan scandal."
Yulsan was a group of companies that climbed rapidly to corporate stardom, seemingly yet another example of the achievements of Korean acumen and imagination. It was headed by Shin Sun Ho, at 31 the latest wonder boy of the South Korean business world.
Shin abruptly went bankrupt after prosecutors charged he illegally obtained $300 million in loans to finance exports, apparently by forging accounts of his sales abroard. After the bubble burst, there were rumors that political friends in President Park Chung Hee's government helped him get the loans. Nothing has been confirmed but the government has responded by suddenly replacing the top executives of 10 large banks that it controls.
Such examples strike hard at a traditional Korean value known as "chongbin," or "clean poorness," which extols the virtue of being poor but honest.
"That has always been a very strong value in Korea," observed Kim Hae Dong, the social scientist. People he has polled get "very angry" at seeing it violated.
"Ordinary people are looking at these things and they ask, 'How could they have gotten rich in such a short period of time?'
"They look at Yulsan and they say to one another, 'You see. . . '"
Many Koreans boast that their society is still fundamentally egalitarian, that each man earns his own way and that the privileges of wealth do not exist. The key, they insist, is education at one of the major colleges, principally Seoul National, Yonsei and Korea universities.
Graduation from one of them is a ticket to success, guaranteeing positions in the big trading companies or a crack at the elite civil service. Admission is based strictly on passing stiff entrance exams.
Everyone has an equal shot and the poorest fisherman's son, in theory, can, with brains and hard work, enroll at Seoul National. "In the 1950s," recalls Moon Toh Sang, a government information official, "farmers sold their cows to send sons to college.It got so bad that some felt we were ruining the rural economy. The education fever is that high."
Recently this assmption of equal opportunity for all has been shattered by revelations that the newly rich are buying their children's admission to prestigious universities by hiring special tutors who specialize in the exams. The fees are enormous - up to $2,000 a month for 12 months - and only the truly wealthy can afford them.
In Japan and many Western countries, such special tutoring would be accepted as normal. In Korea, it is regarded as shameful - "the exam scandal," it is called. Seoul National's Kim Hae Dong estimates that about 75 percent of this year's students have received some kind of special tutoring and calls it "one of Korea's biggest and most urgent social problems." The government has begun firing public school teachers who tutor on the side.
The tutoring scandal is held up by many South Koreans as the prime example of the corruption of the new wealth. How can things be equal when the upper class can buy its children their tickets to success?
"It's like a little club," complains one Korean intellectual who deplores the tutoring groups. "You must have money and good connections to get into the group. How many Koreans can do that? So we borrow money and everyone knows this is a bad thing, but what can you do? There are so many people with so much money." CAPTION: Picture, The recent economic revolution has brought new social chaos to South Korea as it strives to increase indutrialization, such as this fertilizer plant. Korean Information Office