Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Waiting For A New Han River Miracle

In an opinion piece in the Chosun Ilbo, the writer reflects on a recent seminar discussion that suggested the unhappiness many Koreans experience is attributable to a fondness for the materialistic attractions of society. One of the presenters at the seminar, an American professor well-known in his field, studied 130 nations to determine the level of unhappiness in each country. On his index of happiness scale, Korea placed just below the middle range. And when ranking the countries on the importance of the material side of life, Korea placed higher than the very economically advanced countries of Japan and the United States. The professor feels that this trend will continue no matter how much economic progress Korea continues to make.

The writer acknowledges that we all have a desire for the material goods of life but wonders why Korea should be so high on the scale. He offers as an explanation the one proposed by many scholars: that Korea's rapid rise from poverty to having one of the world's most advanced economies is the  fondness for the material things of life--the aftereffect, perhaps, of the sudden transition to the prosperous life.

In surveys that study religion in Korea, about half of those surveyed acknowledge having no religion, thus tending to make the material world the center of their beliefs, along with an amorphous religiosity. The writer alludes to this by mentioning that when a foreign company starts their operation in Korea, they will often  display a pig's head and offer rice cakes to the spirits--a shamanistic practice (Kosa) when worshiping the spirits.

Some would say that this attraction to the material world and the Korean passionate disposition have been the reasons for the country's quick progress. "Let us live well" was a popular motto.  One social scientist believes it is precisely the non-religious base of Korean society and the corresponding materialistic focus that is responsible for the country's economic progress.

This worldly philosophy of life   made possible the "Han River Miracle," a phrase that uses the name of the river flowing through Seoul to describe the transition, within just 50 years, of an economically underdeveloped country to the Korea of the present.

This "Han River Miracle" may have another side to it. Not only is it a catch phrase for Korea's quick rise to economic prominence, but it could also explain why Koreans register low on the Professor's index of happiness. It may indicate, more importantly, that life is not what they expected it to be-- despite the material attainments and opportunities for pleasure the purposefulness of life did not keep pace. A less materialistic miracle than the "Han River Miracle" may be what is needed now.


  1. I tend to agree with economist Jungho Yoo when he says:
    The South Korean “miracle” is widely believed to have been a result of authoritarian government policies that essentially forced modernization and gave it a jump start with export-led growth. However, South Korea‟s ultimate growth was not the result of wise government interference. In fact, government policies were often at cross purposes. The more likely reason for such vast economic growth was the size of the world market which gave Korea an unprecedented potential for expansion at a historically remarkable pace.”
    Regarding happiness, I think that Koreans don't have sufficient time to reflect on what happiness is and what it means.
    I work and live in Korea and though I am a foreigner my life is identical to most average working Korean men, and I can tell you from experience that we have no spare time to stop and reflect on our lives or the direction they are headed. Thus in an absence of the ability to pursue some self-discovery most Koreans do what is expected of them and some find happiness in this and others don't. Perhaps a better study would be 'satisfaction' rather than 'happiness'
    I am sure most Koreans are satified with their lives, having fullfilled their duties.
    Korea meets happiness needs through an acceptance of a certain level of hypocracy...
    Thus the extensive night life, but without time to cultivate family ties beyond fullfilling obligations and to develop an adequate spiricual life, most people just go through the motions until they hit 60 and then they have no idea who they really are.
    I am not sure how much longer i can be here and deal with this myself, but i can't imagine my whole life here.