Sunday, July 21, 2013
Korea #13: My Post Register Column from July 21, 2013
For the past three weeks I’ve been studying Korean history, culture and food at a university at Joenju, Korea. I came, among other reasons, to understand how Korea has accomplished so much in so little time.
In 1970, South Korea had a per-capita economic worth of $79, less than North Korea and most of Africa. Today, its per-capita income is $24,000, its students lead the United States in critical skills and for several years it has been most digitally advanced nation in the world.
Korea has provided new housing for nearly everyone, feeds its people handsomely and has reforesting the 70 percent of the country that is mountainous. Seoul is the world’s second largest city and the fourth richest urban economy. Korea has accomplished this with virtually no natural resources except the minds, spirit and will of its people.
It’s no accident that, with just 50 million people, Korea placed fifth in the last Olympics. It was first per-capita.
Because of North Korea, South Korea supports a large military and uniform military service yet its tax burden is 25 percent compared to 36 percent in the United States and Europe. Now consider what it does with that money.
Health care is provides for everyone, with patients paying ten percent of the bill. Old people living alone receive four hours of assistance a day regardless of income. New mothers receive free child care whether they are working or not. (Social Security is one place we’re doing better than Korea.)
While I was there the House of Representatives stripped food stamps out of the farm bill. Zero. This would be inconceivable in Korea but then Korea is already eating better than we are. Every school child receives breakfast and lunch for free, regardless of income.
How could this be? How could a resource-poor country accomplish more and provide for its people comparatively better than the world’s richest country in many areas in so little time?
There is not simple answer but my anthropology professor, Dr. Jeong Duk Yi, offers a partial response.
“In Korea we don’t say ‘my house’ we say ‘our house.’ We don’t say ‘my country,’ we say ‘our country’ or ‘uri nara.’ We have a communal rather than an individual identity. We have a Confusian tradition. We consider what will benefit everyone.”
Americans have always been more individualistic than Asians but our sense of common purpose has also been strong. That’s what’s slipping away.
To think about this closer to home, 18 percent of Nampa’s teachers have resigned, to which its school board said, “No problem, we’ll hire new ones.” As if teachers were Fritos. So is that not our problem because Nampa is 300 miles away and 25 percent Hispanic? Can we turn our back on those on food stamps because our own bellies are full?
We know the answer to these question: “Uri nara.” You don’t have to be Korean to know what that means and act upon it.