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Posted : 2012-02-07 16:22
Updated : 2012-02-07 16:22

Living in Korea becomes poor bargain


Jobseekers wait at the Seoul Employment and Labor Center last month to apply for unemployment benefits. / Korea Times photo by Bae Woo-han

Surveys show Seoul one of worst places to live; income rise hardly affects quality of living

By Kim Tong-hyung

Korea is becoming a place that requires people to pay a premium for a lifetime of mediocrity. The widening wealth gap, decreasing social mobility and deteriorating family finances suggest that the country’s gross national happiness will continue to sink like stone, experts say.

Surveys conducted by researchers here and abroad in recent years have suggested that Korea is indeed becoming one of the worst places to live among industrialized nations. And beating the metaphorical dead horse is Seoul-based Hyundai Research Institute (HRI), which studied economic data dating back to the mid-1990s to conclude that the link between income growth and living standards here has been irrevocably damaged.

The average Korean took home 21.31 million won (about $19,000) for the whole year 2010, nearly an 80 percent increase from the levels of 1995, when income per head came in just below 12 million won.

However, during the same 15-year span, living conditions measured by Hyundai’s independent quality of life index (Hyundai Quality of Life Index: HQLI) improved by just 32 points from the base year’s 100 to 132.3. The index is based on assessments of economic stability, social integration, health and welfare levels, and housing and environmental conditions.

Unemployment and inequality provide the easy explanations for why the quality of life has been lagging income growth. The jobless rate rose from 2.1 percent in 1995 to 3.7 percent in 2010. The Gini coefficient, which is used to measure the concentration of wealth, with zero signifying perfect equality and 1 meaning complete inequality, aggravated from 0.251 to 0.289 during the period.

``The inconsistency between the growth in income and quality of life is becoming profound. To improve the situation, Korea must regain its ability to create more quality jobs and distribute the fruits of growth more broadly across the population, which will help restore stability in family finances. There is also an urgent need for policies designed to better support family life,’’ said HRI senior researcher Kim Dong-yeol.

``While it’s hard to deny that the level of health and welfare has improved over the years, the country needs to get more bang for the buck from its welfare spending and find ways to increase financial resources to make welfare systems more sustainable.’’

HRI’s sub-index for health and welfare jumped dramatically from 20 in 1995 to 41.5 in 2010, thanks to the advancement in medical services and longer life expectancies. Another index on living conditions improved from 30 to 41.6 due to better housing and transportation conditions and a cleaner environment.

However, an index on economic stability worsened from 20 to 18 as the on-and-off economic turmoil during the years deteriorated the job market and accelerated the concentration of wealth toward high-end income earners. The social integration index also worsened from 31.2 to 30 with the improvement in information access and spending on culture and leisure offset by the increase in crime, divorces and suicides.

The number of divorces increased from 1.5 per 1000 people to 2.3 in the 15 years to 2010, while the number of suicides per 10,000 people increased from 10.8 to a staggering 31.2.

The rapidly-growing rich-poor gap and a diminishing belief in social mobility have some observers wondering whether the country is entering a perfect storm of civil discontent.

With parliamentary and presidential elections approaching, politicians are expecting people to express their frustration in the voting booths first and are competing to create more welfare promises and up the ante in their bashing of large businesses to massage voters’ egos.

The alarming lack of happiness in Korean life has been obvious since the financial crisis of the late-1990s and the recent recession triggered by the collapse of the Lehman Brothers only widened the chasm between the wealthiest and the rest.

Average Koreans continue to see their living standards deteriorate as wages fail to keep up with the rising cost of living. Workers’ share of national income was safely above 60 percent in the early-to-mid 1990s, but fell to 58 percent in 2000 and only rose to 59.2 percent in 2010, according to government figures, as the country’s economic policies continue to put exports before consumption.

The country’s historically-high household debt, at near one quadrillion won, matches an entire year’s gross domestic product (GDP), while an alarmingly large portion of working-age Koreans remain sidelined from the labor market.

The Korea Development Institute’s (KDI) quality-of-life survey last year placed Korea 27th among the 39 industrialized nations that make up the OECD and the Group of 20, based on data for 2008. The country only managed middle rankings in the three other categories analyzed ― economic growth potential, infrastructure and environment.

In an annual report analyzing Korea’s national competitiveness in comparison to other industrialized nations last month, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance concluded that Korea may soon be facing considerable challenges stemming from its social divisiveness.

The increasing disparity between the wealthiest Koreans and the rest was mentioned as a key reason the country is failing to provide the glue for social cohesion.

The ministry’s report was based on the evaluation of 259 indicators in the areas of the economy, social cohesion, environment and infrastructure, where Korea was measured against other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Based on official data for 2008, Korea ranked 20th among OECD countries in equality based on the Gini coefficient, down from 17th the previous year, while the country’s poverty rate was sixth highest in the table.

Poor working conditions were also cited as a problem, with the country’s employees topping the table with 2,193 working hours a year.

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