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Koreans, Thais Scramble to Make Ends Meet

Can't Find a Job? Try the Army

By Michael BakerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 1998


In a spic-and-span waiting room, Jung Yong Shil inspects his Army registration form one last time.

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The college freshman is nervous about tough military training. But these days, it's a lot better than frittering away his money in school or looking for a job.

Seeking refuge from South Korea's economic crisis, students like Mr. Jung are crowding Seoul's Regional Military Manpower Office hoping to save money or delay entry into the work force.

Military service in South Korea - mandatory for all males - pays only about $7.40 a month, but at least one doesn't spend anything, Jung says.

"I'm using a lot of money in college," he says. "If I first enter the Army, I can study harder later."

Flooded with applicants, the military has a waiting list for the first time. Jung just hopes he can spend most of his duty as a traffic cop. "It's easy," he says. "If there was no crisis, I'd just want to find a job."

After two decades of stunning economic growth, South Koreans had become accustomed to an abundance of jobs.

Companies made promises of lifetime employment, and workers from poor Asian countries were invited to do the less desirable work.

But a sudden jump in unemployment has Koreans scrambling, trying to find ways to cope with the recession.

With almost no social safety net, the newly unemployed are left to depend on family members and personal savings. Meanwhile, unions are demanding government countermeasures and urging companies not to fire employees.

On May Day, workers clashed violently with riot police for the first time since President Kim Dae Jung took office in February.

With unemployment at 6.5 percent and growing, social problems are increasing quickly.

Considerably more homeless people loiter and sleep in the capital's train and subway stations, and the suicide, crime, and domestic violence rates have jumped.

Korea's social customs offer little comfort for those who have lost their jobs.

Koreans identify personally with the groups they join: When introduced, adults routinely name the company where they work. Losing one's job can mean losing many social ties.

"If you no longer have an association, it's difficult to meet people," says William Cheigh from William M. Mercer, an international labor consultancy.

No safety net

Moreover, workers depend "virtually 100 percent" on their company for benefits like health insurance, cheap housing loans, and scholarships for their kids, says Yoon Young Mo, spokesman for the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions.

Many families have only one breadwinner, making losing a job more traumatic. In the past two months, the idea that one's company is one's greater family "has very much been destroyed," says Mr. Yoon.

With high interest rates choking even healthy businesses, there is little capital left for the recently unemployed to become new entrepreneurs.

But enterprising people are finding a niche.

Down, but not out