landing on worker

Image: Aleksandar Pasaric (N Seoul Tower)
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By FERNANDO NOGUEIRA DA COSTA*

The term Ppalgaengi, literally “little red”, remains an insult to designate any person critical of the socioeconomic order in force in South Korea

landing in love is a South Korean series that airs on Netflix. I decided to watch it after its information gained immense popularity in much of Asia during the long periods of confinement due to Covid-19. Outside its home country, it became the second most popular Korean production among foreign viewers in 2021, after Round 6. Who am I to snub popular opinion?!

In particular, what caught my attention was the news that a romantic scene, filmed on the small wooden pier over turquoise water with the Swiss Alps in the background, is the main reason why thousands of Asian tourists travel to Iseltwald, a town with only four hundred inhabitants on the shores of Lake Brienz, near Bern. This became a problem because, although it is difficult to calculate the number of fans of the series in relation to the total number of tourists, it is estimated that there are a thousand visitors for every local inhabitant!

The series tells the story of a South Korean millionaire heiress who falls from a paraglider in North Korea, meeting a gentleman officer in the service of the totalitarian regime. The author of the excellent script reported that her inspiration was a real event: an actress was sailing through South Korea when her boat, due to weather conditions, almost crossed the border with North Korea.

The series repackages the tragedy Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, written around 1597. Instead of the story taking place in Verona (Italy), the forbidden romance takes place between two young people in love, whose families/countries are rivals, one in the North, the other in the South.

It's a romantic comedy, but with a tragic fate due to family and political hatred. It addresses universal themes, such as the power of love and the misconception of violence on both sides of the border. Geopolitical sum, geoeconomics, mutual cultural shocks, rising ambitions, whether in the communist nomenclature or in the capitalist dynasty, also involving a lot of suspense and violence. Without prejudice, I recommend it.

landing in love It is one of dramas best evaluated by critics and the public. This title instead of the word drama, to designate Korean series, happens due to a grammatical rule present in Japanese and Korean: a consonant needs to be accompanied by a vowel. It is also used k-drama.

Throughout history, Korean culture has been influenced by warfare. Since the separation of the Koreas, the culture war remains alive. South Korea's industrialization, urbanization and state planning have led to the country having the most educated workforce among OECD countries: 70% of adults aged 25 to 34 have tertiary education.

In the past, most of Korea's population lived in small rural areas, as do North Koreans as the series shows. The scarcity of communism reigns in this country in the face of the abundance of consumerism in South Korea.

However, is this, in fact, the capitalist paradise promised by neoliberalism? Renaud Lambert, journalist for the The Diplomatic World, published an enlightening article about “The Other Face of the Korean Miracle” (issue 192, 30/06/23).

When a contestant questions the virtues of Western liberal democracy, here the right screams: – “Go to Cuba!”. There he exclaims: – “So, go live in North Korea!”.

The Korean Peninsula offers dominant thought an effective contrast to demonstrate the superiority between two options: to the North, dictatorship, hunger and backwardness; to the South, democracy, abundance and progress. On the one hand, the so-called communist totalitarian regime; on the other, a “model” to imitate. After all, this poor country, after the Korean War (1950-1953), developed and became the 12th world economic power, maintaining the title of “most innovative country” since 2014.

There are, however, two South Koreas, one media-oriented and the other exploiting the maximum of its workforce. Exhausted workers even sleep on the subway. Another evidence of the need for rest was detected by a 2021 survey: one Seoul resident in three had not had sex for more than a year.

Koreans work an average of 1.910 hours per year, one of the highest figures among OECD countries, whose average is set at 1.716, against 1.490 for France and 1.349 for Germany. These maintained social democratic achievements in contrast to the series of overexertion deaths in South Korea.

With a population of 52 million people (twice that of North Korea), its conservative president, narrowly elected in 2022, plans to extend the workweek to 69 hours, up from 52 hours a week at the moment. “Employees should work 120 hours a week to satisfy demand”, he defended during the presidential campaign. That's 20 hours a day in a six-day week!

Most companies only pay a certain amount of extra for overtime regardless of the actual time worked. But 60% of Korean wage earners do not use all their days off for fear of losing their jobs. Among the demands of the Korean workers' movement is: “Let them sleep!”.

Even the heirs of conglomerates take advantage of their social status to demand that their employees kneel down and apologize to them. And dismisses them for nothing.

No labor demonstration may occupy the crosswalks so as not to interrupt the flow. A police device measures the decibels produced by the loudspeakers, tolerated only up to a volume of 95 decibels, like a hair dryer. Offenders are exposed to prison sentences of up to six months.

In Korea, more than half of the workers are so-called “irregulars”. The category includes the precarious, the “micro-entrepreneurs”, the undocumented or people subject to cascading subcontracting devices, all of whom are deprived of the rights and social protection granted only by large groups.

There has been a violent crackdown on strikers protesting a 30% pay cut during the pandemic. For the president, “the strikers are as dangerous as North Korean nuclear warheads”.

Against the right to strike, there is a prohibition of “obstacles to business”, subject to imprisonment. You cannot strike against any employer other than your own. The outsourcing mechanism protects large groups against any interruption of work. Thus, being a union leader almost always means going to jail.

In South Korea, the official retirement age is 60. However, it is necessary to wait until the age of 65 to receive the pension paid by the State. Without discounts, it is equivalent to about 30% of the last salary received. Whoever receives it impoverishes. Almost all Korean workers have, after the legal retirement age, to look for precarious and poorly paid jobs, known as "old man's work".

The State authorized companies to reduce the wages of workers over 56 years of age, under the pretext of encouraging youth employment. The last years of work, counted for the calculation of retirement, are characterized by a drop in wages by about a third. Therefore, South Korea exhibits a high suicide rate (61,3 in 100) among retirees over 80.

The country spends the equivalent of US$ 1 billion per year for the operation of the North American military base with more than 28 thousand soldiers. Its privileged ghetto is home to 43 inhabitants, including the soldiers' families and their Korean employees. The existence of the strategic (and comfortable) base justifies the United States not allowing the end of the conflict with North Korea, fearing peace would force them to “pack their bags”.

At the end of 1945, the Korean left was fighting for a sovereign and democratic state. The capitulation of Japan, the country's occupant since 1910, left it in a position of strength. The industrialization process, undertaken in Korea initially by the Japanese, led to the emergence of a working class without dissociating social and anti-imperialist issues. The occupiers' efforts to associate any workers' agitation with a communist plot, contradictorily, raised the prestige of the communists and contributed to give rise to a highly politicized workers' movement.

After the US and USSR divided the peninsula between them in 1948, the US allowed itself a brutal reaction south of the 38th parallel. The Military Government of the US Army, installed in South Korea, came to control the country, dissolved popular organizations, repressed strikes and appealed to anti-communism as the central principle of ideological legitimation of the South Korean state.

The term Ppalgaengi, literally “little red”, remains an insult to designate any person who is critical of the socioeconomic order in force in South Korea. After the neoliberal turn, imposed on the country after the Asian crisis of 1997, it is enough to defend any type of welfare state, without relying entirely on the free market, to deserve the label and even be thrown into prison!

*Fernando Nogueira da Costa He is a full professor at the Institute of Economics at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Brazil of banks (EDUSP).


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