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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea