[GLOBAL EYE]The exit-Korea syndrome worsensThe reality is shocking. We hear people saying that they are tired of Korean society or that they want to give up on the homeland. These words are not from foreigners but from Koreans in their 30s and 40s, in the prime of their lives. Even a consultant at a recent emigration information fair was startled at the size of the crowd and said that he did not know so many people wanted to leave the country.
Many Koreans are willing to abandon the country, complaining that there is no hope at work or for their children. “Emigration fever” is supposedly a passing trend, not yet a social phenomenon. But when more than half of Koreans in their 20s and 30s say they would emigrate if the opportunity arose, the reality is seriously complex. Not long ago, the same age groups were chanting “Oh! Korea” and “Dae-han-min-guk” in unison.
We could humbly hope that the new diaspora would enhance national power by creating a global Korean network. But we cannot deny that the emigration fever is a specific symptom of the “exit-Korea syndrome,” a deadly threat to the country’s social health.
People are not seeking to escape poverty by going abroad. They want to leave Korea in search of a better lifestyle and education. Koreans bitterly joke that the retirement age is 45. The unstable employment structure offers nothing but extreme insecurity for the future to the younger generation. Housing prices in certain neighborhoods are skyrocketing, adding a relative feeling of deprivation to residents elsewhere. Even when you spend an enormous amount of money on education and send a child to a prestigious college, there is no guarantee that the child will find a proper job.
What is more serious is that young professionals in their 20s and 30s are leading the emigration trend. Society is driving away the young and capable workforce instead of embracing and utilizing it. The outflow of a quality workforce, and the consequent outflow of money, will directly translate into a weakening of national competitiveness. Over $5.5 billion was sent abroad to finance students studying overseas last year. Over 17,000 elementary, middle and high school students left the country to pursue education elsewhere last year. Many fathers are staying behind to finance the expensive education, while mothers leave with the children. The family structure is falling apart. Parents think that their children will be fluent in English, a key to success in Korea. But they are not aware that even second-generation Korean-Americans face an invisible language barrier from their cultural background at a certain level.
Emigration does not guarantee success. Some decide to return to Korea after failing to adjust to the new environment. If you find it hard to overcome difficulties in your own country, the chances are slim that you will be successful abroad.
The exit-Korea syndrome is not limited to emigration. As Korea is nicknamed the “labor union republic,” foreign investors have lost confidence in the future of the Korean economy. Companies are relocating production facilities overseas, and the country is rapidly losing its manufacturing industry. You might wonder why foreign investors continue to eagerly put money into stocks, but keep in mind that most investment capital looks at the immediate trading potential of the market and investors can always exit when they find the returns unsatisfactory.
We are looking at a red light for the health of Korean society. The workplace is no longer a permanent source of income, and the social safety net is less than reliable. We need to prioritize the recovery of society by including everyone, creating new jobs, overhauling the old systems, stabilizing housing prices and improving the educational environment. Is it too much to ask for true leadership that gives more hope and vision than disappointment and discouragement?
* The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Byun Sang-keun