World Cup Heralds a New Korea

The euphoria of fans whose team wins a major sporting event is ephemeral. But, prominent professors at Korean universities tell me that the unprecedented success of the Korean team in the current World Cup competition is causing a turning point in Korean attitudes towards their own society and economy. Why?

Many Koreans, especially those who studied or lived in the West, complain about the "cronyism", and the resulting importance of "connections" in all walks of Korean life, which they see as pervasive features of Korean society. They claim that such rampant cronyism is preventing Korea from catching up economically with the West, despite the fact that Korea soon will have as much human capital as western countries.

To understand Korean cronyism we have to see it as one aspect of a set of related social conventions. Koreans accept a sense of knowing one's place in society that seems extreme to Americans. In social interactions, and also in business dealings, Koreans maintain a hierarchy that seems to weigh age more highly than performance.

Also, although admission to elite universities is as meritocratic in Korea as in the West, the outcome of the university entrance competition has a more important and more permanent effect on one's place in Korean society. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that in America people have to prove themselves continually, whereas in traditional Korean society people have only to prove themselves once, then they can be set for life due in large measure to the network of crony contacts that initial success will have provided.