Korea's Poll: Anti-foreign feeling grows as slump hits nation's self-esteem

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The Independent Online
Koreans vote for a new president today, after their economy was brought back from the edge of collapse by a massive IMF rescue package. But their attitude towards the Fund's "medicine" is ambivalent to say the least. Richard Lloyd Parry in Seoul encounters the anger of a proud people.

In a bleak quarter of southern Seoul, a man named Park San Kee sits at a desk in a room strewn with electric cables. Mr Park is an unhappy man. The small electronics firm of which he is director is in crisis, and in the last six months he has sacked 15 of his 25 workers. The factory is operating at less than half capacity, and Mr Park is waiting for the cheques to start bouncing.

The price of fuel has gone up at the coldest time of the year, and the cost of imported comforts like cigarettes has soared as the Korean won has shed half its value. But this month the end finally seems to be in sight. Korea has found its saviour, the International Monetary Fund, which has promised to provide some $60bn to save the crashing economy. Of all people, one would expect Mr Park to be relieved - but it makes him unhappier than ever.

"There is enough money in Korea," he says. "We don't need the IMF. They are the servants of America and Japan - I know it! The results will be very, very bad in the long term." Mr Park is not alone in his loathing for the IMF. Last week in Seoul, demonstrators waved banners denouncing "Japanese colonisation of Korea through the IMF". Cartons of American cigarettes have been burned in the street, and foreign clothes sit unsold in boycotted shops. "Korea has become the competitor of the western countries," says Mr Park. "They need the IMF to push Korea down."

No nation likes to see its economy go down the toilet - apart from the personal hardships, there is a price to be paid in self-esteem. The sense of victimisation is not unanimous, but it is deeply rooted and present at all levels of society. At the grass roots are Patriotic organisations like the National Alliance for the Unification of the Fatherland which organised last week's big rally against American and Japanese "imperialism". At the other end of the political scale are the country's powerful trade unions who rightly fear the effect restructuring will have on wages and unemployment. Men like Mr Park fear for their businesses; politicians fear for votes.

Even the government treated its talks with the IMF officials more like a tough negotiation between business partners than a request for help by a nation in distress, lying about its banks' debts and delaying a final announcement with last minute "demands". But the most ardent bureaucrats acknowledge that the restructuring being pushed by the IMF is the only way out of an economic dead end.

Koreans are a proud people, but it is a pride compounded with touchiness, xenophobia and self-doubt, the product of an agonising history and a uniquely painful geopolitical division. The country's rise from the literal ruins of the Korean War has indeed been remarkable. But to Koreans, the transformation of Seoul from shanty town to megalopolis is a marvel, semi-divine in nature, "the miracle on the Han River".

Korean touchiness is inseparable from a fierce determination, which has prevented the country from being swallowed up despite centuries of buffeting by greater powers. By rights Korea - invaded throughout its history, cruelly colonised by Japan, divided by a civil war - ought to be a bitter and broken country. But beneath the pain and embarrassment, there is something close to relish in the struggle ahead. "My workers don't like me, because their work mates have gone," says Mr Park. "But if I hadn't sacked them, we would all have lost our jobs. They say that I am as cold as ice, but our company shall live on."