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Trust In Short Supply in Korea

New America Media, Commentary, Peter Schurmann Posted: Oct 25, 2008

SEOUL, Oct. 24 -- "These days," goes a popular Korean expression, "everything increases except for three things: a husband's salary, our children's grades and stock values."

The outlook here is bleak, and faith in government low, so when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, in an eight minute radio address to the country on Monday, appealed for trust in overcoming the current economic crisis, his pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears. Trust it seems, like cash, is in short supply.

Jeon Bong-su is a 60-year-old unemployed Korean man who said he voted for President Lee because he thought he could revive the economy. But he now says since Lee came into office, things have gotten worse. "My life seems to have gotten worse since the new government took over, and it's harder to find work," he said.

According to a recent poll, 60 percent of Koreans say the economy is in worse shape now that it was ten years ago, when the country accepted a humiliating bailout from the IMF that is still remembered as a blight on the country's reputation. Many jokingly say the current finance minister, who presided over the bailout ten years ago, is in fact more dangerous to the economy than the IMF.

"The quickest way to surmount the current crisis is for companies, financial institutions, politicians and consumers to trust each other and devote themselves to fulfilling their duties," Lee was quoted as saying in the first of a planned weekly series of such broadcasts by the president.

Critics described Lee's address as a sort of one-way monologue instead of the intimate fireside chat he intended.

Grimacing from the pain he suffers caused by shingles, Jeon describes the difficulty he has in covering mounting hospital bills, as well supporting his wife and granddaughter on his monthly pension of $174. "I feel like I'm treading on egg shells every day."

Since the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the fall of investment giant Lehman Bros., South Korea's economy has undergone extreme volatility. Local banks and businesses are suffering from a severe liquidity crisis brought on by short-term foreign debts, prompting the government to announce on Monday an enormous bailout package to the tune of $130 billion in guarantees and capital injections.

Meanwhile, the currency has lost almost 30 percent of its value since the start of the year and has been ranked by analysts as the worst performing of Asia's currencies since the start of the current financial crisis.

Yet despite the strained economy, a significant portion of Korean parents still say they'd prefer to send their kids abroad to study. One recent poll showed 48 percent of them are willing to send their children overseas for their education, down slightly from previous years but still high considering soaring tuition costs and the won's precipitous decline, which makes it harder to cover education fees and living expenses abroad.

A majority of parents say, and have long said, they do not trust the education system here, widely seen as the sole means to success.

And while education remains a key concern, food safety is another as the country has seen a slew of scandals starting with an outbreak of avian flu in early summer and followed by nationwide rallies against the importation of U.S. beef, thought to be contaminated with mad cow disease. The latter plunged Lee's approval ratings and led to widespread suspicion that the government put Washington ahead of Korean's health.

The most recent food scare involves imports of Chinese made dairy products containing the industrial toxin melamine, which sparked a wave of illnesses and several deaths among infants in China last month. Though no deaths or illnesses have been reported in Korea, the case has left consumers here leery of the government's ability to ensure the safety of their food.

Baek Myung-ja is a 39 year-old mother of two who says despite her tight budget, she's willing to pay as much as three times for organic produce. "Avian flu, mad cow, and melamine from China. With all these problems, food safety is my main concern," she says.

A middle class mother of two, Baek lives on the outskirts of Seoul, and says since the economic troubles began she's had to cut her spending in half, doing away with eating out and shopping for clothes. Still, she says, "I don't mind paying three times the regular price for food I know is safe."

And while the economy sputters, lawmakers find themselves caught up in a corruption scandal that emerged after a series of high level officials were found to have illegally received rice-farming subsidies originally intended for the nation's rice growers, who are struggling to cope with cheaper imports. The investigation has since widened to include thousands of the nation's civil servants, and is threatening to end the tenure of the nation's vice health minister.

The issue is yet another stain on the president's highly controversial cabinet selection and further proof there is little to inspire trust in the nation's leadership. That mistrust runs deep, from education and food safety to bi-partisan disputes and relations with allies and neighbors, North Korea being the most glaring.

A blogger on the Web site Dailian writes that in the face of mounting economic uncertainty, "it is time for the government to give people hope, to inspire belief the government can provide a new direction out of the current financial crisis."

In other words, trust has to be earned.

Peter Schurmann is a Korea based writer for New America Media.

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