Culture History Working in Korea

Why do Koreans work so hard? Who are chaebols? Why do Koreans love SPAM?



For most of you who know Korea as the birthplace of the trendy K-Pop (RELATED : What is HALLYU 한류 the “Korean Wave”? What makes K-pop popular?) and some of the world’s largest enterprises like Samsung and LG, and after seeing the city’s skyscrapers soaring to the sky, it might come as a shock that the country was one of the poorest countries not so long ago. And it was not an overnight rags-to-riches, Cinderella style fairy tale. Here’s the real story.

Image by Joesketeer from Pixabay

During the first half of the 20th century, Korea had nothing but a series of hardships and agony. The Japanese Occupation exploited the nation in every possible way, which reached the peak during the Pacific War (1941-1945) and World War II (1939-1945). The much needed capital, the land, the natural resources, and the lives of the Korean men and women were indiscriminately procured to the Japanese military fighting in the war. The joy of liberation that came with the Japanese surrender (1945) was short lived. Just 5 years later, Korea experienced the fratricidal tragedy – Korean War (1950-1953). This 3-year-long all-out war burned the nation to utter ashes. The U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, the designated commander of the United Nations during the Korean War lamented the devastation and predicted that it would take 100 years for the nation to recover.

RELATED : Why are Koreans so furious over the Japanese “rising sun” flag? – JAPANESE OCCUPATION – Sad History.

Why is Korea divided? History of Korean War, Who are the “Kim Dynasty” of North Korea? 

The living conditions of the Korean people were just awful. What was considered a decent meal, lucky if you could get it, was a mere hodge podge of scrounge or smuggled leftover foods from the U.S. Army base, and for starving families, dumpster diving was nothing to be ashamed of. One of those make-shift meals was kkulkkul-i juk 꿀꿀이죽 (“piggy porridge’), which was a casserole made from putting together anything edible that you could find from the U.S. Army base. While unwelcomed elements like rubber bands, toothpicks, and shoe parts were often found, it was faithful to its duty of filling up the empty stomachs of the Korean people.

kkulkkul-i juk 꿀꿀이죽 War Memorial of Korea

While it can no longer be found on the menu of Korean restaurants, another variation called budaejjigae 부대찌개 remains in existence, and in fact, is an extremely popular menu. Meaning “army base stew,” budaejjigae is made with spam, ham, sausage, baked beans, kimchi, gochujang, and ramen noodles.

As you can infer from its name and the ingredients list, the main ingredients are the surplus food supply scrounged from and smuggled through a black market around the U.S. Army base, added with local Korean ingredients to cater to the Korean taste buds (it was also called jonseuntang 존슨탕 “Johnson soup” because President Lindon Johnson was said to have raved about the taste during his visit to Korea). These days, it’s extremely popular as an anju 안주 dish (food consumed with alcohol), proof that Koreans don’t associate it with the past struggle, although they are aware of it.

Budaejjigae 부대찌개 Image by withplex from Pixabay

Another important term to know is boritgogae 보릿고개 (“barley hump”), which refers to the common fear and hardship coming from the shortage of food every spring because it’s the period when you run out of last fall’s harvest and this year’s barley (rice was scarce among ordinary people) has yet to ripen. It was termed so because the struggle was extremely difficult to overcome, which must have felt like climbing a hill.

They re-branded it as K-Army Stew haha. I’d check it out.

Nongshim K-Army Stew, 4.65 Ounce, 4 Count [Amazon]


But Koreans are known for their indomitable “can-do” spirit. In the 1950s, the nation’s feeble economy was barely sustained by U.S. aid, which started to shrink from the late 1950s. To rectify the situation, the nation began to seek ways to develop its own economy. After the collapse of the first President Rhee Syngman’s 이승만 government as a result of the April 16th Revolution, the Second Republic set up a five-year economic development plan, which wasn’t implemented until the Park Chung-hee 박정희 administration took over through the May 16th military coup. The Park administration vigorously pushed ahead with the five-year economic development plan, a growth policy that aimed to make Korea an export-oriented country. At the same time, it set ‘modernization’ as a national policy goal and launched the Saemaul Undong 새마을운동 (New Town Movement) campaign which sought to fix, through modernization, the disparity of the standard of living between the rapidly industrializing urban areas and rural areas that were still left behind in poverty. The campaign’s slogan, “Jalsarabose” 잘살아보세 (Let’s try to be better-off) resonated with the Korean people and served as the driving force behind the dazzling transformation. Every day, people woke up motivated to participate in the development projects and went to bed feeling proud of the contribution they were making to the nation. As a result of the efforts of Korean workers who were able to provide quality labor at low wages, light industries developed greatly.

The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea [Amazon]

Saemaul Undong changing communities around the world 새마을운동의 의미와 세계화

Outside Korea, a skilled labor force was its major export as well. In the 1960s, miners and nurses were sent to Germany, and in the 1970s Koreans were working on the construction sites in the Middle East. Also during this time, over 320,000 Korean soldiers fought in the Vietnam War (1964-1973), and the subsidies and overseas combat allowances, along with loans received from the U.S. in return for their participants, were invested in fostering light industries as well as national land development projects. In the 1970s, heavy and chemical industries such as oil refining, shipbuilding, and fertilizer increased, and the automobile industry began to grow gradually. As a result of the efforts of the government and the people, the nation’s economy grew at an unprecedented speed in modern world history. Korea’s per capita income stood at just $67 in 1953 but surpassed $1,000 in 1977 and $10,000 in 2000. Exports topped $10 billion in 1977 and $170 billion in 2000, compared with about $22 million in 1957. It has achieved hundreds of times the growth in just over 30 years.

Photo by Ethan Brooke on Pexels.com

This period of incredibly rapid reconstruction, transformation, and economic development is known as hangang eui gijeok 한강의 기적 “Miracle on the Han River,” an analogy originally incorporated by the Prime Minister Chang Myon 장면 of the Second Republic during the New Year’s address of 1961 to encourage the fellow Koreans to make it through the difficult times by achieving an economic upturn similar to that of the “Miracle on the Rhine,” West Germany’s successful reconstruction through economic revitalization after World War II. Korea’s economy kept on progressing and was called one of the “Four Asian Tigers,” which also included Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan.

Ode To My Father (gukje sijang 국제시장, 2014) 
A movie encompassing the important events of modern Korean history, from Korean War to the Miracle on the Han River. It's One of Korea's top-grossing movies.
Ode To My Father (gukje sijang 국제시장, 2014)
A movie encompassing the important events of modern Korean history, from Korean War to the Miracle on the Han River. It’s One of Korea’s top-grossing movies.
ODE TO MY FATHER – Official Int’l Main Trailer

In 1996, Korea reached a symbolic milestone and made a statement to the world by becoming the 29th country to join the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), which was mostly composed of advanced countries. Korea successfully showcased its capacity by hosting a series of global events, such as the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games, 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, to name a few. In 2018, South Korea was the 7th largest exporting country with the 12th largest GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and 30th largest GNI (Gross National Income).

Koreana – Hand in Hand | Opening Ceremony Seoul 1988 | Music Monday

Wonder how North Korea, who chose a vastly different path, is doing? Ever since 1974, which was the last time North Korea was ever ahead of South Korea in terms of GNI, the gap continued to widen and in 2018, North Koreans made a mere $1,300 USD per person while South Koreans made $29,900 USD per person. GDP wise, the North made  1/43 of what the South made. “The Miracle on the Han River” is one of the most remarkable achievements of modern Korean history, which made Korea a model example for developing countries hoping to emulate the success.

Macaron Unisex-Adult Bigbang GD’s Seoul Korea 88 Olympics Snapback [Amazon]


As the movie Gukgabudoeui Nal 국가부도의 날 (Default, 2018) accurately portrays, Korea’s economic winning streak came to a screeching halt when it fell into an ambush in 1997. The Asian Financial Crisis took the region by the storm, causing a serial collapse of economic meltdown. Korea was among the countries hit hardest by the sudden blow and was on the verge of default due to the foreign exchange shortage. Countless companies filed for bankruptcy, and people were losing jobs, and families were forced out onto the streets. Korea managed to bail out through international financial supports including IMF (International Monetary Fund), but at a steep price. The government had to carry out extensive corporate restructuring and institutional improvements over the years, and people had to tighten their belts. This period, one of the most difficult and disgraceful times in modern Korean history, is commonly known as the “IMF Era,” and the expression “because of IMFIMF 때문에 was used by people whose life was drastically changed as a result of it.

Trailer #1 (2018) | Movieclips Indie


Remember? Koreans are known for their indomitable “can-do” spirit! The “Gold-collecting campaign,” geum moeugi undong 금모으기 운동, was a national patriotic movement that took place in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis with the aim of collecting gold from the public, exporting it, and converting it into dollars to increase foreign exchange reserves to repay the foreign-exchange debt which amounted over $300 billion USD. Over 3.5 million people participated, voluntarily bringing out their cherished items like wedding rings to gold medals, and the campaign was able to collect a total of 227 tons of gold, which was double the amount of what Korea Bank had in reserve. With the unified effort of the people and the successful restructuring of the economy, Korea was able to announce on December 4th, 2000, that all the loans from the IMF were paid off and thus completely got out of the financial crisis.

South Korea marks unhappy anniversary of Asia’s financial crisis


What would be a good holiday gift in Korea? Surprisingly, one of the most popular gifts during the holidays is SPAM. How has SPAM become so popular in Korea when it is treated as a “cheap pseudo-food,” or “food that reminds you of war” in the U.S.? According to the NPR (National Public Radio), South Korea is the second-largest spam-eating country after the U.S.. It was during the Korean War that SPAM  was introduced to Korea, when food was scarce, especially meat. At that time, SPAM was a luxury food that only the rich and those tied with the U.S. army base could afford, and for the less fortunate, budaejjigae, made using leftover food from the U.S. army base, was a wonderful means as it contained SPAM, a precious source of protein. Of course, budaejjigae is not the only reason why SPAM is loved by Koreans. One of the reasons is that the salty taste of SPAM goes perfectly with rice and kimchi. The increase in the number of dual-income families and single-person households who enjoyed the convenient recipe is also a contributing factor. In addition, the series of advertisements promoting the image of ‘quality processed meat’ worked like a charm.

Image by tesatool0 from Pixabay
Tom Hanks learns the best Korean SPAM recipe!

Here, you can replicate the Korean Kimchi + Spam combo.

Spicy Napa Cabbage Kimchi by Choi’s Kimchi Co. Made in USA. [Amazon]

Spam Reduced Sodium Six 12 Ounce Cans Value Pack [Amazon]


Chaebol 재벌, composed of two Chinese characters jae 재 財 “wealth” and beol “clan/faction,” refers to the family-owned and controlled large Korean conglomerates with diversified subsidiaries. Occupying a lion’s share in various areas of the Korean economy, chaebols were intensively fostered by the Korean government’s economic development policy in the 1960s and 1970s. During this process, chaebols played a crucial role as a driving force for the rapid economic growth, but because they expanded their power through strategic alliances with other political and business circles, harmful effects such as monopolization and political back-scratching have occurred. Korean chaebol dramas like Royal Family (2011, MBC) and Sangsokjadeul 상속자들 (The Heirs, 2013, SBS) portray the unique Korean management style of chaebol, with the most notable characteristic being the enormous amount of power and authority the owner family can exert, which often supersedes that of the management. As of 2019, the top 5 biggest chaebols in terms of the total asset are Samsung, Hyundai Motors, SK, LG, and Lotte, and their presence in the Korean economy is huge, with the total combined asset of the top 4 was nearly half the total GDP of Korea in 2017. The concept of chaebol is so unique that it’s one of the Korean words listed in the Oxford Dictionary.

Stereotypical Korean chaebols in K-dramas. No ENG sub but you’d get the drift.

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