[Outlook] A looming social crisisWhen the Asian financial crisis hit Korea in 1998, an academic seminar was held in Hawaii where sociologists had a series of animated discussions. They talked about whether Korea was facing a social crisis in the wake of the economic crisis. A group of scholars made a diagnosis that the country was indeed in the throes of such a crisis, and presented statistics to back up the claim. Crimes such as scams and robberies were on the rise. Families were falling apart and the divorce rate was rising. One cold-blooded father even cut off his son’s finger in order to claim insurance money. This group maintained that these were symptoms of a disease gripping our society, causing our social standards and norms to be abandoned.
Although we were few in number, some socialists including myself rejected that theory. We saw that those numbers had been on the rise for a long time and that the recent increases were not much bigger than the usual growth rate in those areas. Extreme cases such as immoral acts within families had always existed. We maintained that it was wrong to use those cases as evidence to proclaim that society was in the grip of a crisis. Jumping to that conclusion too easily would in fact mean that we would be dealing with a crisis of crisis theories. Fortunately, we were able to overcome the economic problems at the time and the theory that Korea was in a social crisis disappeared.
That was all well and good, but these days I fear we may actually be facing such a social crisis because of the current economic meltdown.
A social crisis is much more serious than an economic one. Once it breaks out, it could take decades to overcome. For instance, during the period when we were battling against military rule, we developed a tendency to ignore public law enforcement. That is a serious chronic disease that our society has yet to cure.
Pathological problems in society are persistent and hard to correct. Once a family falls apart, it is nearly impossible to restore.
The current situation is different from the financial crisis in several respects, making social problems more of a concern this time around. It is not only because of the economic outlook that the current troubles will persist.
The real issue is how people respond to the economic turmoil. During the financial crisis, the people united. The grass roots were standing on the edge of a cliff, barely managing to eke out a living. Still, they joined together and were able to overcome.
But people are now having difficulty finding reasons to work together. The crisis cannot be overcome simply with hard work. Korea is seeing a string of confrontations between different ideologies. The National Assembly is in chaos. Many different sectors of society are clashing over the Yongsan tragedy, in which evictees and a police officer died in the course of protests.
Another difference is that the gap between the rich and the poor is greater than it used to be. In 1997, our society was relatively equal. When incomes were categorized into five different levels, the highest level earned around four times more than the lowest group. Now, the top group earns 7.6 times more than the lowest when the difference between rural and urban areas is taken into consideration.
The economic crisis will hit the bottom class hardest and the gap between the top and the bottom classes will certainly grow.
Despite these circumstances, we are focusing too much attention on economic indicators such as exchange rates, stock indexes and interest rates. We don’t hear the silent cries from the other side of the economic downturn, cries which herald the looming social crisis.
Social norms will collapse, families will abandon their children, housewives will prostitute themselves and we will see more domestic violence and a surge in the divorce rate. We will see an increase in suicides and crimes, and distrust of society and hatred for the social order will grow.
Another symptom is unemployment, which hurts the pride of the family breadwinner and gives rise to income polarization and the weak resenting the powerful.
It is not too late. We need to collect information related to the state of our society, analyze the trends and prepare measures with which to respond.
A social crisis will descend upon us before we know it. We need to be sensitive to its progress, and we need to find ways to handle a third economic crisis that may hit us in the future.
The crisis we’re facing now is of the type that cannot be overcome simply by checking economic indicators.
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Yong-hak