The British Government, James Forsyth informs us in The Spectator, is “going to go South Korean on the virus”. But what do most of us know about South Korea?
Here are ten things most of us did not know about South Korea, or of which we had only the haziest awareness. Any mistakes or incompleteness in what follows are attributable to the author’s ignorance.
South Korea’s population of 51 million includes about 13.5 million Christians, by far the largest religious group, followed by about seven million Buddhists – over half of all Koreans adhere to no religion. About two-thirds of Korean Christians are Protestant, one third Roman Catholic.
Moon Jae-in, President since 2017, is a practising Catholic. The history of Korean Catholicism can be traced back to the early 17th century, following the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in China; of Korean Protestantism to American missionaries in the later 19th century.
Since 1945, there has been a striking growth of Christianity among the Korean middle class, closely associated with highly competitive educational institutions and with modernisation.
Unlike the United States, South Korea has recently impeached a President and sent her to prison: in 2017 Park Geun-hye, the country’s first female leader, was sentenced to 25 years in jail for abuse of power and coercion.
South Korea has the fastest broadband in the world, attained, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has explained, by methods markedly different to those recently proposed by John McDonnell: Korea has ruthless competition between private providers, policed and directed by a powerful mandarin class, with no tolerance for failure.
The health care system is excellent. Most hospitals are private, many of them run by Korea’s private universities. The system is paid for from state-run compulsory health insurance, introduced between 1979 and 1989, which covers up to 60 per cent of bills for treatment, so most Koreans supplement it with private insurance.
From 1961, under the authoritarian leadership of General Park Chung-hee (father of the now imprisoned president), South Korea entered a period of rapid, export-led economic growth which transformed it from a poor country into a rich one. In 1974, the General continued to deliver a speech after surviving an assassination attempt in which his wife was fatally wounded, but in 1979 he was shot dead by the head of the Korean intelligence service. In the two decades after his death, Korea underwent a stormy transition to democracy.
Tackling the Coronavirus
South Korea has an average of 1313 inhabitants per square mile (compared to 671 in England), of whom about half are crammed into the Seoul Capital Area: figures which make its success so far in getting a grip on the Coronavirus by tracing those who have contracted it all the more impressive. But as Chris Smyth of The Times observed yesterday in a tweet: “South Korean authorities can look at your medical record, credit card bills and mobile phone data if they don’t think you’ve given them full enough answers in contact tracing. Are we ready for that here?”
It remains difficult in South Korea to admit to mental illness, and in a list for 2016 by the World Health Organisation comparing the frequency of suicide in 183 countries, South Korea came tenth (the UK was 109th).
On a lighter note, K-pop, represented by bands such as BTS, has in recent years made South Korea part of the world youth culture scene.
By comparison with other advanced countries, South Korean men do very little child care and house work, in part because they work very long hours.
In 1988, political scientists from Berlin and Seoul who specialised in divided countries held a conference at which they predicted that North and South Korea would be reunited long before East and West Germany. The following year, the Berlin Wall fell, followed by German reunification, an event the experts had failed to foresee. Nobody knows whether the North Korean regime will at some point crumble as swiftly, completely and peacefully as the East German one did. But the reluctance of the experts, after decades of immobility, to predict such an outcome, means the chances of this happening are almost certainly underestimated.