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South Korea, once known as the "Miracle on the River Han," has been recently in the news for the wrong reasons. The tragic sinking of a ship that killed hundreds of school children on their way to Jeju Island has been attributed to mismanagement, corruption and the personal cowardice and selfishness of the captain and his crew. It would be unfair, however, for the outside world to jump to the conclusion that this individual case can be generalized and reflects a breakdown of Korean society. As I have written often in this column, South Korea continues to be an outstanding model of a once-poor country that has attained First World status in record time through enlightened leadership and the appropriate social and economic policies that enabled it to escape the "middle income trap" in the last century. An initial focus on countryside development; a relentless effort to construct world class infrastructure; a high rate of savings; investments in human capital through quality education at all levels; a modified version of crony capitalism based on meritocracy rather than personal connections; and the appropriate macroeconomic and microeconomic polices that capitalized on the demographic dividend resulting from the baby boom after the Korean war. These were features of what was part of the "East Asian miracle." The mismanagement and corruption surrounding a shipping company and the human weaknesses of a captain and his crew cannot erase these exceptional accomplishments of this Asian tiger of the twentieth century.
The real challenges to South Korean society are found in an article that appeared in The Economist some two and half years ago on December 17, 2011. Entitled "The system that has helped South Korea prosper is beginning to break down," the essay is all about the way the Korean youth are subject to so much unreasonable pressure by the educational system of South Korea. The main blame is laid on the exams that have to be taken by almost all high school graduates to enter into the best universities of the country such as Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. The Economist recognizes the original wisdom of the exam system: "Making so much depend on an exam has several advantages for Korea. It is efficient: a single set of tests identifies intelligent and diligent teenagers, and launches them into society's fast stream. It is meritocratic: poor but clever Koreans can rise to the top by studying very, very hard. The exam's importance prompts children to pay attention in class and parents to hound them about their homework; and that, in turn ensures that Korea's educational results are the envy of the world. The country is pretty much the leading nation in the scoring system run by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). In 2009 it came fourth after Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, but those are cities rather than full-size countries."
This outstanding success of its educational system, however, has been achieved at very high human costs. The case of South Korea reminds me of the real measure of success of any society: integral human development. The social doctrine of the Catholic Church defines the common good as a social or juridical order that enables every member of society to attain his or her fullest development as a human being: economically, politically, socially, culturally, morally and spiritually. The leaders of Korean society must start balancing these multiple dimensions of human existence. Otherwise, its having a per capita income of more than US 20,000 annually may be meaningless if it becomes notorious for having the highest rate of suicide, especially among teenagers. As The Economist report suggested, Korea's high educational achievements come at huge costs: "For a start, high school is hell. Two months before the day of his exams Kim Min-sung, a typical student, was monosyllabic and shy. All the joy seemed to have been squeezed out of him, to make room for facts. His classes lasted form 7am until 4 pm, after which he headed straight for the library until midnight. He studied seven days a week....Min-sung says he doesn't particularly want to go to university, but he feels 'social pressure' to do so. He dreams of getting a job as an agent for sport stars, which would not obviously require a university degree. But he reluctantly accepts that in Korea, 'You can't get any job without a degree.' "
To make matters worse, Korea's rigid social model aggravates the nation's extreme demographic problems (it has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world at 1.15 babies per fertile woman). Korean women refuse to have enough babies to provide the country with the workforce it direly needs for future growth. The Economist has this dire prediction: "If each Korean woman has only one baby, each generation will be half as large as the one that came before. Korea will age and shrink into global irrelevance." Korean society will be able to sort out the tragic shipping accident. What will take greater effort, creativity and enlightened leadership can be summarized with the title of the popular song from the Walt Disney blockbuster, "Frozen". Koreans must "Let It Go", they must loosen up. The Economist ends its article with the following advice, which I fully endorse: "Korea is rich, so it can no longer grow fast by copying others. It cannot remain dynamic with an ageing, shrinking workforce. It cannot become creative with a school system that stresses rote learning above thinking. And its people cannot realize their full potential in a society where they get only one shot at doing well in life, and it comes when they are still teenagers. To remain what one writer called 'The Land of Miracle,' Korea will have to loosen up, and allow many routes to success." Since Koreans are well known for being very good singers and dancers, let them in unison sing "Let It Go." For comments, my email address is email@example.com.