Politics of division

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Politics of division

Lee Sang-eon

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
South Korea has been divided into two groups — the 88 percent getting relief grants from the government and the 12 percent who won’t. The government calls the first group the “bottom 88 percent,” even as it prides itself on not being discriminatory. President Moon Jae-in asked for understanding from the 12 percent “as they are relatively better off.” The 88 and 12 percent figures are supposed to refer to income levels. But the guidelines are blurry. For example, a single-person household with annual income of 50 million won ($43,441) and without any other asset goes into the upper 12 percent, whereas another single-person household living in a space provided by parents and receiving allowances from them while being between jobs falls into the 88 percent.
Many in the so-called “better-off” 12 percent may not agree — or understand why their families are denied the 250,000-won handout for each member after having dutifully paid their taxes. Many in the 88 percent group may feel a twinge of shame for failing to make the other side of the income divide.
Some of those who felt they had been well-off could be shocked by the state category as the lower income group. The male bread winner also could lose face with other family members. For them, being in the bottom group could feel as bad as finding a poor grade on a report card even though they had not done well on a test.
Social stratification can be described either in the shape of a diamond or pyramid. There are bell-shaped or hourglass-shape patterns, too. But in textbooks, a diamond-shaped stratification is a model one, in which the middle class forms the largest share vis-à-vis the smaller top and bottom share. A pyramid type is the classic class hierarchy with the poor making up the bottom and the rich the top.
Ruling Democratic Party Chairman Song Young-gil, third from right, speaks before a consultative meeting with government officials on relief grants for people suffering from the pandemic. [LIM HYUN-DONG]

Ruling Democratic Party Chairman Song Young-gil, third from right, speaks before a consultative meeting with government officials on relief grants for people suffering from the pandemic. [LIM HYUN-DONG]

In the consensus study by Statistics Korea in 2017, 14.7 percent of the people made up the bottom, 65.7 percent the middle, and 19.6 percent the top. From the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) classification, Korea is closer to a diamond shape. However, based on the perception of the people in the same survey, 44.6 percent said they belong to the bottom class, 53 percent to the middle, and 2.4 percent to the top. That shape looks more like a pentangle. In a poll consigned by the Chosun Ilbo in 2020, 48.7 percent of the respondents felt themselves to be middle class.
In contrast with the international statistics guideline, more people in Korea — up 48.7 percent from 44.6 percent — felt themselves close to the lower class than before. Their sense of relative deprivation from the die-hard gap in real estate and education standards may have played a part. The income gap also widened between the upper and lower class. That’s why many Koreans feel their society is a pyramid shape.
The division between the 88 percent and 12 percent income groups reflects a two-stage pyramid diagram instead of the typical three-stage diagram. Apart from the top 12 percent, the rest are bundled up in the bottom class just like the government divided the people for relief handouts. Many who had believed to be middle class have suddenly been stigmatized as the bottom group who should be thankful for picking up the 250,000-won relief checks. Some are actually living as the middle-class, but could feel victimized by the unequal economic structure.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP)’s stratification of 88 percent vs. 12 percent is a clever campaign strategy to claim that most Korean people live hard life due to unequal social structure. On the conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP)’s part, however, it has made a poor move by going along with the idea. It is not just a tactical miss but also an example of poor politics.
Aristotle argued that a society can be healthy only when the middle class forms the multitude. The top class and bottom class can hardly dump their class-based egotism. The government’s framing of 88 percent vs. 12 percent leaves less room for the middle class. The conservative opposition should have insisted on offering selective relief grants for the merchants and households hard-hit by social distancing rules till the end. The PPP has lost both conservative principles and practical interest.
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