High Prices Drive Koreans to Streets

A Korean returns home to find both inflation and traffic surging - a letter from Seoul. THE RACE BEGINS

SOUTH Korea was once regarded as a shoppers' paradise by Americans. Clothing and shoes were the main attractions. But this is the wrong place to look for bargains these days.

Visiting Korea after a nine-year absence, it is easy to feel poor. One cantaloupe costs about $15. A pair of Nike or Reebok shoes costs more than $50. A pair of these shoes was priced at less than $7 just 10 years ago.

Such items are out of reach for many Koreans; on average, Korean workers earn about $6,000 a year. But "that GNP number is misleading," a Seoul resident says. "There are many Koreans who are making a lot more than that."

Since the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, the price of a home has increased fivefold, a shop owner says. This has created problems for many middle-class Koreans who cannot afford apartments that cost at least $100,000, she notes. These are not necessarily mansions: A $5 million apartment I visited had only four bedrooms (and the bathroom was not plated with gold).

Some Koreans who saved money to buy dream homes now find they cannot afford them. Instead, they are buying cars. In apartment complexes in Seoul, parking lots are packed with cars from Hyundai, Daewoo, and Kia, Korea's Big Three. Some families even have two cars.

With so many cars on the road, Koreans are wrestling with heavy traffic jams and serious air pollution. Major intersections in Seoul have electronic terminals that display that day's traffic casualties. Official figures show that about 13,000 people were killed in automobile accidents in all of South Korea last year - 6,000 of these were in Seoul. This year, the number is expected to decrease to about 5,000, according to the Traffic Ministry.

The traffic minister says he is grateful for this progress but notes that Korea's rate is still 13 to 15 times higher per capita than the Western average.

After several harrowing taxi rides, I could see why there were so many accidents. Taxi drivers honk their horns wildly and refuse to yield to other cars. They stop frequently in the middle of busy traffic lanes to pick up passengers.

One thing that has not changed in the past decade is Korean parents' zeal for educating their children. Currently, only 10 percent of the student population in the country can enter the more prestigious universities and colleges in Seoul, parents say. In order for their children to pass college entrance examinations that determine career prospects, Korean parents spend every penny they can on education. In addition to attending regular schools, most students take private lessons, primarily in mathematics

and English. Several parents say they spend $350 to $500 per child a month for these lessons.

Despite the economic downturn, South Koreans are looking forward to unification with North Korea, which could be as costly a venture as the German reunification. South Korean businessmen say they expect that some kind of unification to take place within 10 years and that there will be a form of federation with both countries recognizing each other and peacefully coexisting.

As in the recent US election, a three-way race is under way here. Kim Young Sam, the ruling Democratic Liberal Party candidate, is widely expected to win the Dec. 18 vote by a small margin. The main opposition candidate is the Democratic Party's Kim Dae Jung. Another candidate, Chung Ju Yung, is the founder of the giant Hyundai Group and is called the Ross Perot of Korea.

When asked by a relative which candidate I supported, I said: "I would vote for anyone who could solve the traffic problems in Korea."

"That's out of the question," he responded. "No single president can solve that alone."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.