The Price of South Korea's Productivity

Creativity isn't the forte of the south-east Asian tigers. They hope to find clues in Israel

While Israel's ambassadors to the capitals of Europe were squirming in front of the television cameras trying to justify the raid on the Turkish flotilla to Gaza in May 2010, Jerusalem's envoy in Seoul, Tuvia Yisraeli, had an easier time. He was asked by a South Korean television reporter to talk about the marvels of the Israeli education system.

The conflict in the Middle East, the settlements and the injustices of the occupation hardly ever make the news pages here. Koreans, especially the Protestants among them, feel a strong religious attachment to the Land of the Bible. Their feelings of admiration for the small country that has vanquished all its enemies are superseded by only one stronger tie: economic interest.

There is nothing like the story I heard from Asher Naim, my neighbor on the flight from Tel Aviv to Seoul, to demonstrate the connection between economics and Korean diplomacy. In 1992 Naim was sent to reopen the Israeli Embassy in Seoul, which Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan had closed in 1978 "for budgetary reasons." When the Israeli government wanted to rectify this mistake, Korea gave it the cold shoulder. The Republic of Korea's relations with the Arab countries were at the flourishing. Only after 15 years of pleading did the most important economic power in southeast Asia agree to reopen the gates of the Israeli Embassy in Seoul.

Naim did not stop at that; he wanted to persuade his hosts to open an embassy in Israel. "Friends told me that the shortest way, if not the only way, went through the bureau of the chairman of the Hyundai corporation."

After prolonged wooing, Naim was received by his excellency on a low chair. The chairman surprised the guest with declarations of love for Israel but apologized that Hyundai had just signed a seven-digit contract with Libya to carry out an infrastructure project and he feared if "the madman Gadhafi" heard that Korea had opened an embassy in Israel he would cancel the contract.

Naim argued that the secondary Arab boycott was no longer in force and proposed that Hyundai test this by carrying out a large project in the Dead Sea area. And indeed, Hyundai found out that the Arabs did not make a fuss about their cooperation with Israel. The Korean foreign minister invited Naim for breakfast and announced that Israel was about to receive a new ambassador.

Dr. Ryu Tae-young, president of the Korea-Israel Friendship Association, told me in fluent Hebrew that this year, as in previous years, the association is sending dozens of young Koreans for training courses at kibbutzim.

The creativity gap

Rumors of the social justice protest in Israel reached the ears of the young reporter who met me in Seoul, a meeting arranged through the Korea Fund. She wondered how a small country that has won so many Nobel prizes cannot manage to meet the basic needs of its citizens.

South Korea has nearly 50 million inhabitants and its per capita gross national product scrapes the $32,000 per year mark. The international economic crisis has hardly been felt there. The official unemployment rate is less than 3.5 percent. Yet during all the years of South Korea's existence - it, too, was born in 1948 - none of its scientists has ever been found worthy of the big prize. (A propos Nobel Prizes, many people in South Korea study Talmud in the fervent belief that the secret of Jewish wisdom lies not in the army bases, but in the yeshivas. )

The explanation for the gap between creativity and productivity in this immensely corporate country - the assets of Samsung, the largest family corporation, are estimated at $280 billion - can be found in the high walls and the many cameras installed on the bridges across the Han River that flows through Seoul, and in the telephone lines that are connected to suicide prevention centers. According to an official survey published two years ago, suicide is the major cause of death among young people (aged 15 to 24 ). What drives them to such desperate measures is primarily anxiety about failing in studies and finding a job.

The Koreans attribute the vast increase in wealth, to a large extent at the expense of happiness, to the dictator Park Chung-hee who ruled them with a heavy hand for eighteen years, from 1961 to 1979. The combination of a tough economic policy and the competitive education system that Park promoted made human capital the substitute for the state's meager natural resources.

His daughter, Park Geun-hye, who last week declared (for the fourth time ) her intention to run for the leadership of the ruling party in the primaries that will be held next month, is trying to depict herself as a motherly figure concerned about the young sons and daughters of South Korea. To that end she will have to offer affordable housing to Y.G., a single woman of 35 who has a master's degree in languages and lives with her two brothers in a tiny apartment.

If she wins the presidential elections held at the end of this year, as the public opinion polls are indicating, Park will have to promise Y.G. and her partner that the state will support the private education of their children. This does not mean education for the wealthy; Y.G. and her elementary and high school classmates attended a private school in the afternoons, poring over their studies until late at night.

Their fear that they will not be able to afford private education for their children, thereby condemning them to failure, has raised the average age of marriage among young Koreans and slashed the birth rate. South Korea plummeted to 215th place in births per capita worldwide. It turns out that a Samsung for every child and a Hyundai for every worker are not enough to generate hope in the future.