Success has not spoiled Park Jae Young, but it has made him distinctly uncomfortable with the way he lives his life.
A well-paid executive with a large South Korean trading company, Park is at his desk every morning at precisely 7:20 and puts in a 12-hour day. Athome every night, the business calls come in from Europe and Africa and there is no rest until, exhausted, he unplugs his apartment telephone at 11.
He is abroad one week each month, seeking out buyers in Israel, France, India, Egypt. "I married late in life [at 34] because I thought it was unfair to leave a wife all the time," he explains to a visitor. "And then the day after I married I put my wife in an apartment and flew to Japan in business. It is terrible for my wife, this way."
Park's lament offers a revealing glimpse into one of the darker corners of South Korea's brilliant economic success story. Hard work and material success have very swiftly become the dominant values, bringing with them the special pains of affluence well known to the West for generations.
Their complaints read like a litany of Western social problems. Husbands are pressured for success in business, their children for success in college and high school. Housewives complain openly of boredom and depression. Marriages crack. Everyone speaks of rebellious and disrespectful youth.
For the new middle class, the comfortable old Confucian values-family closeness, respect for elders, a reverence for tradition, disdain for mere money-are quickly being eroded.
The impact is especially severe here because it has all come about so fast, in hardly more than a decade, and Koreans talk of a sense of rootlessness as old ways disappear with familiar landmarks, almost overnight. Park recalls growing up in a big family in a neighbour where everyone knew everybody else. He lives now in a small but comfortable apartment in a large complex of concrete buildings. Waving his hand at the apartment next door, he says, "I don't even know who lives over there."
South Korea in 10 years has gone from a poor and semirural nation to an increasingly prosperous and urban one. Ten years ago, half the people lived on farms. In the early 1980s, only 20 percent will live in the countryside. Polls show that 80 percent of the people now regard themselves as middle class, although only 20 percent actually are by standards of income.
They have gained much in the exchange. South Korea has one of the world's most fluid societies with great social mobility. The clever hardworking can rise from poverty to comfort in a span of two or three years.
Park's 12-hour days have transformed his division of the trading company into a profit-maker and him into moderately rich man.
His business exploits would strike staid Americans as bizarre. He barters with Turks, selling tires and shovels and getting back sheep wool that is made into coats. He discovered that, contrary to what the rest of the world thought, Indians could be induced to sell the skins from sacred cows and his company now turns out soccer balls in that country. For such adventurous dealings, he is paid about $30,000 a year-a small fortune by past Korean standards.
Examples such as Park impel other Koreans to strive for success. Parents of the poor work long hours to boost their children into the access routes of prosperity. One business executive recently discovered that although he sends his own children to public schools both his maid and chauffeur send theirs to private schools so they can be better prepared for college."We are a nation of upstarts," observes a prominent journalist, Kim Young Hie. "We are a totally successoriented society.
Yet, the effects of this uncommon drive on the Korean family are disturbing to many who talk freely of shattered marriages and deteriorating personal lives.
"Traditionally, the Korean father was usually around the home and he made almost all of the family's important decisions," recalls a social scientist from Seoul National University, Kim Hae Dong. "Now they never get home until just before [midnight] curfew. It's especially true of those in the top social classes. The wives take care of everything. I think this is very bad."
The old Confucian insistence on respect for elders has been dissipated by the new living styles, sociologists agree, and has become a serious concern of the government. Children grow up not in large houses filled with grandparents, aunts and uncles but in new apartment buildings where they see relatives infrequently.
The government sporadically attempts to revive the old value by sponsoring "filial piety" campaigns. The school curricula has been revised to emphasize respect for the elderly and a pilot program launched to install old men in special schoolrooms to be visited regularly by students.
A Seoul psychiatrist, Chung Sung Kuk has noted a rising rate of mental depression among young Korean wives in the period of Korea's greatest economic boom. He estimates that a third of the married women are in some stage of serious depression.
At a seminar sponsored recently by the Seoul YWCA a number of young wives discussed their unhappiness in an open forum that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. One described a husband too busy at work to discuss anything with her. Chung finds more and more Western-influenced women eager to discuss their unhappy sex lives and many complain that marriages arranged by their parents through match-makers led to lives of unpleasantness and hatred. They would never mention their grievances to others in the past, he said.
Match-making has in fact been turned into an instrument of material success. Match-makers traditionally mated young men and women of similar backgrounds and similar goals. They are increasingly used today to marry promising but poor young men to middle-class daughters whose fathers promise them good jobs.
"An able boy who gets into Seoul National University is a salable commodity," says Kim, the journalist. "We used to be ashamed of selling ourselves. Now we don't mind." CAPTION: Picture, New apartment buildings proclaim South Korea's prosperity - and the passing of its traditional family life.The Christian Science Monitor