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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Feb. 23)

All News 06:59 February 23, 2023

Unhappy Koreans
Coexistence should be prioritized beyond growth

Korea is the role model of many developing countries. It has shifted from a beggar to a donor in a couple of generations and boasts a vibrant democracy. Korea's pop culture, called "hallyu," is sweeping even U.S. and European award ceremonies. In its 5,000-year history, this country's global economic and cultural influence has never been more significant than now.

Still, Koreans are now unhappier than ever.

Recent government data based on the U.N. World Happiness Report 2022 is only its latest affirmation.

According to a Statistics Korea report, Korea ranked 36th from 2019 to 2021 when it comes to the people's life satisfaction, which places the country third lowest among 38 OECD member nations after Colombia and Turkey.

Why? Various sectoral statistics reflect the dismal reality, but two stand out ― the highest suicide rate and the lowest birth rate. In other words, many Koreans want to break away from the hierarchical society here reminiscent of the compartmentalized trains in the movie "Snowpiercer" and many don't want their offspring to hop on the stifling caravan.

This is a country of unlimited, breakneck competition. Once you drop out of the rat race, having a second chance is almost impossible. A feudal society as recently as 130 years ago, Koreans had opportunities to move up as their country was modernized and industrialized. However, Korea has returned to a hierarchical society based on money. Koreans born with a "dirt spoon" in their mouths can never beat those born with a "gold spoon."

As the new saying shows, few pay attention to silver medalists or runners-up in this polarized society. Even the people who won first place, including CEOs, do not feel happy and are unsure of their standing. So, people who graduated from the most prestigious Seoul National University are dying to send their children to U.S. Ivy League schools to ensure a better future when judged using a materialistic yardstick. Korea might be the only country where money ― not family ― is the foremost concern of the people.

All this shows Koreans need to redefine the meaning of happiness. Two countries deserve their attention in this regard ― Finland and Bhutan. Despite the difference in their national income levels, these countries put focus on building a close and wide social safety net instead of economic growth. Fins and Bhutanese also prioritize relationships among people and find happiness in small things.

Korea also has a unique generational trend concerning the quality of life. In most industrial countries, life satisfaction is relatively high among children and adolescents free from coping with livelihood issues, but falls when they reach middle age and become breadwinners of their families, and rebounds among older adults after retirement. In Korea, however, the globally notorious suicide rate is even higher among teens and the elderly. They drop out before jumping into the main competition or cannot escape the rat race until death. Competition exists from the cradle to the grave. No wonder youngsters call their country "Hell Joseon," after the dynasty before this republic was born.

Political leadership also matters.

"National happiness" was one of the campaign pledges of the disgraced former President Park Geun-hye. Upon taking office, Park carried out numerous programs to turn her promises into reality. Ironically, Koreans' happiness index hit bottom due mainly to their dissatisfaction with politics tainted by cronyism and secrecy run by a group of hidden advisors and helpers, leading to Park's impeachment. The inter-Korean tension is not helpful, at the least. Most Koreans appear numb to near-perennial tension but live in constant fear, if only subconsciously.

For many reasons, Koreans will likely be missing Park soon, the incompetent but relaxed conservative leader compared to her incumbent successor.

Park, calling inter-Korean reunification a "jackpot," tried to move toward North Korea and launched various "happiness projects."

President Yoon Suk Yeol has two archenemies inside and outside ― labor unions and North Korea. Escalating tension between the two Koreas seems to look for a fuse, and the crackdown on unions and the consequent strengthening of employers will drive Koreans to work harder and longer.

Soon, many Koreans may think themselves fortunate not to be unhappier.

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