[WHY] The highs and lows of Korea's ppalli ppalli culture

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[WHY] The highs and lows of Korea's ppalli ppalli culture

A bus stop in central Seoul is bustling with commuters on April 26, 2022. [YONHAP]

A bus stop in central Seoul is bustling with commuters on April 26, 2022. [YONHAP]

Next time you get on an elevator in a tall building in Korea, take a closer look at the close-door button: In many cases, the button is pretty worn-out because of the amount of times people have jabbed it over and over to shorten the time — even by just a second — to get to their destination.
At bus stations, people rush to buses which oftentimes start moving before passengers have even finished tapping their card to pay their fare. And even before the bus reaches their destination, many Koreans would have already stood up to wait for the screeching stop and flinging open of the doors.
This speediness runs deep in the veins of Korean society, often cited as one of the first or biggest culture shocks by foreigners in the country.
So much so, there is a term to identify the tendency: ppalli ppalli culture. Translating to quick or hurry, the word is often used to push someone or something to be done as quickly as possible.
Many experts link the rapid industrialization and modernization in the 1950s following the devastating 1950-53 Korean War to the country’s emphasis on expeditiousness. Against this backdrop, being fast-paced is often considered greatly efficient and the basis for societal growth.
Over time, however, people in the country have also learned that the ppalli ppalli practice could result in sloppiness or the negligence of more important values, inducing mental well-being.
Why is Korea so obsessed with speed?
Analysts are divided over the main force driving the tendency. One of the most common assertions is that the country’s experience of leapfrogging from an impoverished country to an economic powerhouse in a single generation led to its affinity for promptness. Spearheading the country's growth was former President Park Chung Hee, who ruled the country between 1963 and 1979.
Although his military dictatorship is still the subject of controversy, the former leader instilled the can-do spirit into Korea’s businesses and people’s daily lives. He set ambitious goals like achieving $10 billion of exports and completing nationwide transportation infrastructure, and made them a reality.
For instance, Korea’s exports stood at a mere $100 million in 1964, but increased to $10 billion in 1977, three years ahead of schedule. It only took the administration two and half year to complete the Gyeongbu Expressway, an expressway that connects the capital city to southernmost Busan, in 1968.
“The crucial moment in which ‘ppalli ppali’ became Koreans’ code of conduct was the 1960s when economic development plans were pushed by the military government after the Korean War,” said Kang Jun-man, a columnist and journalism professor at Jeonbuk National University in his paper.
Is it all due to modernization?
No. Modernization contributed to accelerating the tendency for speed, but it is far from being the sole factor.
A number of accounts by foreign travelers and historical records identify Koreans’ propensity toward the fast-paced.
King Sejong the Great, the fourth ruler of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) credited with creating the Korean script hangul, wrote about such a tendency in the royal annals.
“Our people tend to be in a rush on every occasion, so they lack precision,” the annals say. “How can we craft roof tiles well to prevent them from being destroyed in times of heavy rain?”
Isabella Bird Bishop, a British explorer and writer, noted the people’s agility in learning.
“The foreign teachers bear willing testimony to their mental adroitness and quickness of perception, and their talent for the rapid acquisition of languages, which they speak more fluently and with a far better accent than either the Chinese or Japanese,” she said in her book “Korea and Her Neighbors,” which was released in 1897.
But still, there are multiple reports — many of them by foreign travelers or visitors — depicting Koreans as lazy.
American geographer Ellen Churchill Semple and novelist Fannie Caldwell Macaulay observed the characteristic in the early 1900s, explaining that the unfair economic system prompted their laziness.
“The Koreans are docile, amiable, lazy, ineffectual. Centimes of oppression and overtaxation have robbed them of all economic incentive. Their ideal is ‘honorable idleness’; and to them all idleness is honorable,” they noted in a report.
Some Japanese officials in the colonial era also gave a similar assessment, though many are of the opinion that those accounts should be taken with a grain of salt, as the reports could have been intended to debase its former colony.
Does Korea emphasize speed more in certain areas?
Since the practice is deeply embedded in essentially all areas encompassing day-to-day lives and businesses, it is hard to say that Koreans disproportionately apply the practice to certain areas. And yet, there are a set of fields that stand out.
Koreans are particularly impatient with slow internet speeds, since it hampers the quick exchange of communication, banking, shopping and so many other tasks now done via mobile devices. Some opt to close the browser and retry it instead of looking at a load screen for, say, three more seconds.
When KakaoTalk, a mobile instant messenger used by over 90 percent of the Korean population, goes down for a moment, users are quick to flock to other social networking channels to report complaints, often shooting “KakaoTalk error” to the top of the trending terms on portal sites.
An error on the app related to sending texts and images took place last year on May 5 for two hours, during which people flooded online forums and social networking sites with complaints about the inconveniences associated with the glitch.
Following the incident, the Ministry of Science and ICT launched a probe to look into whether Kakao, operator of the messenger, properly manages their servers.
The need for speed also spurred the broad access of broadband and wireless internet connectivity, earning the country the nickname “one of the most-wired countries.”
A banner celebrates the world's first launch of the 5G network on April 5, 2019 in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. [NEWS1]

A banner celebrates the world's first launch of the 5G network on April 5, 2019 in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. [NEWS1]

This is the main reason that the Korean government and companies alike are preoccupied with becoming the first to offer the most advanced and fastest wireless services.
Korea was the first country to deploy the 5G network, although the speed and overall quality of the network were poorer than initially advertised.
Household-name manufacturers like Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics played an integral part in advancing the state of technology used in the country.
From the perspective of the ppalli ppalli culture, Korea's public transit system is a central method of allowing for fast-paced physical movement. The country’s bullet trains, metro system and buses are well-developed, covering practically every corner of the country. They are on time in most cases, insofar as passengers can access real-time traffic information enabled by the country’s extensive adoption of the global positioning system and an advanced network infrastructure.
At each bus stop, a display board shows when certain busses will arrive. Seoul uses these electronic boards at over 800 stops, with around 7,800 intra-city buses connected to the system.
Electronic boards show the arrival times of buses. [YONHAP]

Electronic boards show the arrival times of buses. [YONHAP]

The real-time transit information system is commonplace now, but what is notable is that Korea has been employing the system since 2001. The city of Bucheon, Gyeonggi, first installed the system, followed by nearby regions including Seoul and other cities.
The estimated times were not as accurate as it is now, but the city governments continued to improve it. The accuracy of arrival times is now 94 percent, according to the Seoul city government.
The real-time bus locations are also shared with internet service providers, so commuters can check the estimated arrival time using applications. The likes of Naver and Kakao offer arrival information down to the second and show the fastest transfer route in metro lines to allow commuters to find the quickest way to transfer.

Delivery workers ride motorcycles in Seoul on June 28. [YONHAP]

Delivery workers ride motorcycles in Seoul on June 28. [YONHAP]

Whatever Koreans order, they want it in their hands as quick as possible. One might say that such a tendency is universal, but the Korea may take it to the extreme.
Even before iPhones or the concept of apps existed, people would order food by phone when going for a simple, fast meal. Delivery time would vary depending on the type and amount of food, but consumers would expect their order to arrive in less than 30 minutes — anything longer than an hour would likely warrant a complaint call.
Some mom-and-pop restaurants and chains like McDonald’s hired their own delivery workers to transport the food by scooter or motorcycle. Still, the introduction of smartphones brought more diverse restaurants into the delivery system, with available eateries ranging from Korean traditional soups and side dishes, sushi and spaghetti to fast food pizzas and hamburgers.
In the sphere of online shopping, taking more than two days to get a package tests the patience of many Korean customers. Popular e-commerce players like Coupang and Market Kurly have introduced same-day or early morning delivery that ensures the arrival of packages the day after an order is placed.
Does everyone advocate for ppalli ppalli?
No. Although the ppalli ppalli tendency likely did help the country develop at such a rapid pace, disastrous incidents due to the haste give rise to a national soul-searching.
Sampoong Department Store in Seocho District, southern Seoul, collapsed on June 29, 1995. [YONHAP]

Sampoong Department Store in Seocho District, southern Seoul, collapsed on June 29, 1995. [YONHAP]

One symbolic example is the collapse of Sampoong Department Store in 1995, which killed 502 people and injured over 900. The cause of the collapse was a structural failure.
Eight months before that, the Seongsu Bridge crossing the Han River in Seoul collapsed into the river, taking with it cars, vans and a bus. The cause was, again, a faulty part in the support structure.
Following the series of tragic incidents in which the hurried culture may have played a role, political and business leaders, at least in rhetoric, put less focus on speed and emphasized the importance of being meticulous and accurate, especially entering into the 2000s.

BY PARK EUN-JEE [park.eunjee@joongang.co.kr]
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