Times were tough but not overly competitive

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Times were tough but not overly competitive


Min Hyun-ki

Min Hyun-ki was born in 1953, the year the 1950-53 Korean War ended. Technically, he’s not one of Korea’s baby boomers, which demographers track from a year or two later. But he is one of the first of Korea’s postwar generation.

And when Min sees President Park Geun-hye on television his many recollections of Korea’s transformation over 60 years crystallize into a specific sense-memory: The sight and smell of a bowl of white rice on a dinner table.

“It was sometime in the early 1970s that my family first began to see bowls of steamed rice on the dinner table,” said the veteran civil servant, reminiscing with a smile. “Not every meal, of course. That would come later.”

“It was about 10 years after former President Park Chung Hee took office that we began to enjoy a bowl filled with rice at a meal,” says Min, who has worked for 34 years in livestock oversight in North Chungcheong.

The current president summons that memory for Min because, of course, she is the daughter of Park Chung Hee.

Min and the other baby boomers lived through one of the greatest economic transformations in history, most of them playing their own part in pulling Korea out of the ruins of war. In 1953, Korea was as poor as Ghana and other African countries and, instead of rice, Koreans were eating bark off the trees. From Park Chung Hee’s coup of 1961 through elections in 1987, Korea was led by authoritarian military governments.

Now Koreans live in a freewheeling - if imperfect - democracy, and their per capita income is above Saudi Arabia and the European Union, according to the IMF.

The election of President Park Geun-hye gives a feeling of coming full circle, Min says, and he has a sense of gratitude as well as sympathy for the woman who is a year older than him.

“I think people in my age group have this feeling toward Park and her family,” he says, “who led Korea to develop in such a profound way that no one had foreseen at the time.”

Min was born in Cheongwon County, North Chungcheong, to parents who farmed rice paddies. Min says his parents registered his birth in 1955, two years after he was born, a common practice in those days.

“Because of a lack of medical facilities, many toddlers died in the first two years,” he says, “so many parents didn’t bother getting their birth certificates for up to three years.”

Min began work as a public servant overseeing local livestock farms in North Chungcheong in 1979, the year Park Chung Hee was killed.

Looking back at his three decades in public service, Min says the most dramatic difference he feels is the attitude toward government policies by the general public.

“In the 1980s when dictator Chun Doo Hwan ruled the country, the government implemented a variety of measures to boost livestock products. And people were much more receptive to policies introduced by the military-junta than they are now.”

The biggest challenge for Min and Korea came in late 1997 when the country was hit with a financial crisis that led to massive layoffs and the collapse of conglomerates that once seemed invulnerable.

“For the first time, the government laid off public workers to cut its spending in the aftermath of the crisis,” he recalls. But Min, and Korea, got through the bad times, and his biggest hope now as he nears retirement is for his children.

But there, too, he sees a very different Korea from the one in which he grew up.

When his son and daughter were admitted to Cheongju University, a private four-year college, Min had no doubts that his children would fare well in the workplace and in their lives. Min himself never went to college.

“I would say only about two in 10 students pursued a college education in the 70s,” he says. “When my friends went to college, they had high hopes for successful future with quality job prospects. But now, a college education does not promise a job opportunity, let alone a quality job.”

Min says his 30-year-old son is still unemployed and has been studying for over five years to become a low-ranked civil servant like his father.

“The society has become too competitive with too many qualified job seekers fresh out of college,” he says.

For 1,446 job openings in the civil service in Seoul, over 125,000 job seekers applied to take the examination in September - an 87.1 to 1 competition rate.

“To young people these days, job security is the most valued thing,” Min says. “That’s quite the opposite of what me and my friends thought back in our youth.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]
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