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

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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Regional ESF Contract Manager

£32500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Birmingham: European Social Fund...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home