'Nut rage' in S Korea spotlights culture of punishing long hours

Studies show that South Koreans work 47 days more each year than the average American, and a six-day week is still common. 

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A bus carrying Cho Hyun-jin, former vice president of Korean Air Lines Co., arrives for her trial at the Seoul Western District Court in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Cho on trial after an inflight tantrum over a serving of nuts defended her actions as the result of devotion to work in the final day of testimony.

South Korea’s “nut rage” scandal has unleashed long-simmering public resentment over the makeup of family-run conglomerates here.

Now the saga – where the daughter of Korean Air's chairman turned around a taxiing aircraft after being served bagged nuts in first class – is casting a light on the country’s relentless work culture. New revelations show the chief flight attendant who oversaw the nuts presentation was ordered to work shifts lasting up to 18 hours.

Testifying at the trial of the daughter, Cho Hyun-ah, who at the time was a Korean Air vice president, flight attendant Park Chang-jin said he was assigned a “work schedule from hell” after the incident that received international press attention. Ms. Cho potentially faces three years in prison if convicted of assault and aviation-safety related charges.  

Korean Air denies that it sought to punish Mr. Park. It told a local newspaper that the flight attendant was not being victimized and that his work schedule was similar to other employees in his position.

Mr. Park’s testimony resonates strongly in a society with some of the longest work hours in the world, undergirding a work culture that has seen South Korea rise from poverty in the 1960s to the top ranks of world economies. 

According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Koreans on average work 47 days more days a year, about a month and a half, than their American peers. 

Yet as Korea punches above its weight as a economic force after decades of a work ethic designed to help it surpass its neighbors, and former peer North Korea, a new round of grumbling about over-work and work place policies is starting to emerge. 

No time for hobbies

Son Hye-jin, a sales representative at a clothing export firm in Seoul, for example, often feels she has no life outside the office. She begins work at 8 am, and doesn’t finish until 7 or 8 at night. Weekends are no guarantee of relief, as work often extends to Saturdays.

“If I had some free time, I think I would like to learn this or that, or take up a hobby, but it’s impossible because I don’t know how much overtime I will have to do,” she says. “You’ve no choice but to work, right?”

Small and medium-sized firms are notorious for pushing employees to work schedules at odds with labor laws that are supposed to strictly regulate work hours and pay. 

As an employee at a mid-sized IT firm, 24-year-old Lee Eun-woo says she often worked for up to 17 hours to please her boss. “I was depressed. I really wanted to quit my job, but it was impossible because it is extremely hard to find a job in Korea these days.”

Like Son and many others, Lee wasn’t compensated for the mountains of work that extended outside her official workday of 9 to 6 and that she was expected to handle.

“That’s the reality at most small and medium companies. In our country, the places that actually give you money for overtime are large companies. At other small companies, it’s really hard to get.”

Social gatherings after hours

The rigors of work don’t end in the office. Employees often must attend afterwork dinners that turn into drinking sessions, called “hoesik.” While ostensibly set up to relieve work pressure and encourage bonding, such gatherings are often stressful, especially for women because of hierarchical norms. 

“In the ‘hoesik’ culture, as a woman, the boss forces you to drink and tells you to show off your ‘aegyo,” says Lee, referring to a Korean expression for a type of affected cuteness prized in women.

At one such drink-fueled outing, Lee says she witnessed her former boss hit a subordinate for no apparent reason. As a lower-ranking employee, he had no choice but to accept his boss’s abuse, she says.

Korea’s demanding work culture largely stems from its rapid industrialization after the Korean War, according to Park Tae-gyun, a history professor at Korea University in Seoul. Park Chung-hee, a dictator who ruled for 17 years from the early 1960s, and is widely seen as the father of the country’s modernization, used South Koreans’ insecurities toward regional rivals like Japan, the former colonial power, to implement an intensive and regimented work culture. 

“Actually, South Korea at that time was poorer than North Korea, so people believed that we should catch up with North Korea, and that was achieved in the early 1970s,” Prof. Park says, adding that a similar mentality pushed people to strive to catch up with Japan.

A culture of striving continues to guide society, he says.

“Every day, most parents say to their sons or daughters that, first of all, if they are students, ‘study hard’ -- if they are more than 20, ‘please work hard.’ So that’s kind of Koreans’ habit still. They believe working hard is a way to live better.”

Signs of change

Albeit slowly, conditions are changing, as well as expectations. While still near the top of the global rankings, South Koreans today on average work about 350 fewer hours a year than they did in 2000.

Legislation to abolish the six-day work week at many companies came into effect in 2004. Successive governments have recognized the need to reduce work hours, for both economic and social reasons, although some businesses, as well as workers who want overtime pay, have opposed such moves. 

Park says the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which led to unprecedented mass layoffs, effectively upended many Koreans' expectations of a job for life. Some began to prize their leisure time and develop interests outside the workplace. 

But for some Koreans, change can’t come fast enough. Fed up with negative experiences of the workplace and job market in her country, Lee moved to San Francisco in July to study English and plans to pursue a career in software development abroad. 

“Korean society is rampant with a culture of poor workplaces,” she says. 

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