Social Classes in Contemporary Society

South Korea Table of Contents

Rapid economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization have caused a profound transformation in the class structure of South Korean society since the end of the Korean War. One of the most important changes has been the emergence of a "new" middle class consisting of civil servants, salaried white-collar workers in large private companies, and professionals with specialized training, such as engineers, health care professionals, university professors, architects, and journalists. The number of factory workers also has grown impressively. According to figures provided by Kim Kyong-Dong, a sociologist at Seoul National University, the portion of the population that can be labeled "new middle class" (excluding self-employed professionals) grew from 6.6 percent to 17.7 percent between 1960 and 1980. The proportion of industrial workers expanded from 8.9 percent to 22.6 percent of the labor force during the same period. Independent farmers and members of the rural lower class, including agricultural laborers, experienced corresponding declines in percentage: together, they accounted for 64 percent of the population in 1960 but only 31.3 percent in 1980.

The urban lower class, consisting to a great extent of recent arrivals from rural parts of the country living in squatter areas, composed an estimated 6.6 percent of the population in 1960 and 5.9 percent in 1980. An "old" middle class consisting of shopkeepers and small business proprietors in urban and rural areas, self-employed professionals, and self-employed craftsmen grew modestly from 13 percent to 20.8 percent of the population between 1960 and 1980. Kim's figures also include what he euphemistically calls an "upper-middle" class--the country's economic and social elites, whose numbers grew from 0.9 percent to 1.8 percent of the population between 1960 and 1980.

Another way of viewing contemporary South Korean society is to consider the sources of social inequality. In a 1988 article, Korea specialist David I. Steinberg focused on several of these sources, which include the disparity in living standards between urban and rural areas--the main motivation behind sustained urban migration. Although the Saemaul Movement was successful in narrowing the gap between rural and urban incomes during the mid1970s , disparities subsequently reemerged. Steinberg also noted that despite the land reform of the late 1940s, tenancy has grown, and that by 1981 as many as 46 percent of all farmers were "full or partial tenants."

Discrimination on both the community and individual levels against the people of North Cholla and South Cholla provinces remains a second important source of inequality. Disparities in per capita income between Seoul and the provinces of North and South Kyongsang had virtually disappeared by the early 1980s, but per capita incomes in the capital were still 1.8 times those in the Cholla region in 1983. As in most other Asian (and most Western) countries, gender differences remain another source of major inequalities.

Government control of the financial system has created substantial inequalities between the favored chaebol, which at least until the late 1980s had access to credit at low rates, and capital-starved smaller businesses that had to rely on nonbank sources of credit. Official support of the chaebol as the engines of South Korean economic growth and industrialization was clearly reflected in the differences between salaries and working conditions of employees in large and small enterprises. Also, the Park and Chun regimes' hostile policies toward labor unions kept workers' wages low--and internationally competitive. In Steinberg's words, "the Korean worker has been asked to suffer for the good of society as a whole . . . ." Activists who tried to organize independent unions were harassed, arrested, imprisoned, and frequently tortured by the authorities. During the liberalization that began in 1987, however, the government permitted the establishment of independent labor unions and assumed a new attitude, at times approaching neutrality in labor-management disputes.

Education remained the single most important factor affecting social mobility in the 1990s. With the exception of the military, whose top echelons were educated at the Korea Military Academy, the postwar elites of South Korea shared one characteristic: they were graduates of the most prestigious universities. There was a well-defined hierarchy of such schools, starting with Seoul National University at the top and followed by Yonse University and Korea University (known as Koryo in Korean). Ehwa Woman's University was the top institution for women.

A survey conducted in the mid-1970s by the Korea Development Institute, a research organization funded by the government but having considerable operational independence, revealed that 25 percent of a sample of entrepreneurs and 35 percent of a sample of higher civil servants had attended Seoul National University. The university's control of entry into the government and business elites is comparable to that exercised by the University of Tokyo in Japan. One major difference, however, is that for a Japanese student an extended period of study or residence abroad is not considered advisable because it interrupts one's career "track" within a single bureaucracy or corporation; many prominent South Koreans, however, obtain advanced degrees at universities in the United States and in Western Europe.

The social importance of education is one of the major continuities between traditional and contemporary Korea. People at the top require blue-ribbon educational backgrounds, not only because education gives them the cultural sophistication and technical expertise needed to manage large, complex organizations, but also because subordinates will not work diligently for an uneducated person--especially if subordinates are educated themselves. "Old school ties" are also increasingly necessary for advancement in a highly competitive society. At the bottom of the steep higher-education pyramid are low-prestige "diploma mills" whose graduates have little chance of breaking into elite circles. Yet graduation even from these institutions confers a sort of middle-class status.

Despite impressive increases in university enrollments, the central importance of education credentials for social advancement has tended to widen the gap between the middle and lower classes. Income distribution is more unequal than in Japan or Taiwan, with pronounced disparities between college and secondary-school graduates. Many workers know that their comparatively low wages make it virtually impossible for them to give their children a college education, a heavy financial burden even for middle-class families.

In the workplace, men and women with a middle-school or secondary-school education are often treated with open contempt by university graduate managers. The latter address them with rude or abrupt words whose impact is amplified by the statussensitive nature of the Korean language. The result has been bitter resentment and increasing labor militancy bordering on political opposition to the status quo.

During the 1980s, the concept of minjung (the masses) became prominent in the thinking and rhetoric of radical students, militant labor unionists, activists identified with the Christian churches, and progressive but generally non-Marxist intellectuals. Although its meaning is vague, minjung encompasses not only the urban proletariat in the Marxist sense but also the groups, including farmers, small bourgeoisie, students, and skilled craftsmen, who allegedly have been exploited by the country's numerically small ruling class (the military elite, top bureaucrats, and big business). National elites were viewed as collaborating with foreign (particularly United States and Japanese) capitalists in order to create a situation of permanent dependence on foreign capital. The emphasis on neocolonialist themes by minjung spokespeople drew deeply on South Korean populist, nationalist, and xenophobic sentiments to place the origin of social evils outside the Korean race.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress