What can profoundly define the trajectory of a country over the course of a couple of generations?
In the case of South Korea, the answer is clear: It is the belief in the value of education, as well as the dignity and the benefit that it can provide.
I was in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. It is a very interesting and buzzing city of over 10 million people in a nation of 50 million. South Korea has been classified in 2021 as a developed nation by the United States. This means that until then, it was classified as a developing nation. As a matter of fact, it was extremely poor out of the Second World War and out of the Korean War in the 50s, for example 80% of the population and more couldn’t read or write. Today, it is a major technology hub, an exporter of television sets, mobile phones, cars, brands like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Kia, that are known worldwide. Over the course of just two three generations, it has been able to bootstrap the entire nation into the premier league. Definitely, the local culture contributed fundamentally to this. The belief in the value of education and in the belief that not only students, but institutions and teachers and families, of course have to work together in order to achieve the desired outcomes.
Today, the question is not whether this approach works, because it has proven to work, but the question is how to adapt this approach to the current new realities. The extreme pressure on the students is visible in the suicide rates that are very high. “The necessity to achieve and to succeed is not complemented by an understanding that failure can be part of it, and that failure is not an end of the road, but it is maybe a bump or maybe a learning experience instead”.
The challenge, of course, is how to stay competitive, how to maintain the growth in the domestic product. That has been the traditional measure of economic success, and certainly improved the material quality of life of South Korea. The wealth and income inequality in the country is high, and the Social Safety Net is insufficient, especially in protecting the elderly who are living in poverty in very large numbers, a percentage that is close to 30% of the South Korean elderly living in poverty. Like in many places in the world, Seoul and South Korea live in contrasts, and these contrasts are unavoidable. They are preferable than total homogeneous equality that gives no opportunity to excel, no opportunity to achieve no incentive to work on self improvement that benefits the entire society.
However, these contrasts need to be managed; for South Korea and Seoul in the coming years and certainly decades, the new challenge is going to be how to adapt, how to not only achieve material wealth, but balance and psychological, mental well being in a society that has been able to push itself to succeed, but it must not crumble upon the responsibility of succeeding at any cost.