Out of Korea: Forbidden fruit in austere times

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SEOUL - The hedonistic, free-sex Orange tribe is on the way out in Korea - along with other non-Confucian pastimes such as playing golf, bargaining for wage rises and - wash your mouth out - accepting political bribes. Under the new regime of President Kim Young Sam, who was inaugurated a month ago, Korea is to become an even more austere, hardworking country as it tries to revitalise its economy. 'The time has come for sweat and tears,' Mr Kim said on Friday.

Koreans have had their share of sweat and tears - colonisation by the Japanese, murderous civil war and then a period of military dictatorship coupled with relentless industrial growth. Some foolish types actually thought they had earned themselves a breather.

The new President was quick to disillusion them. Economic growth slowed to a mere 4.2 per cent last year - a snail's pace by Korean standards. So upset was Mr Kim, and so determined to set a good example, that he announced that he was giving up golf for the entire term of his presidency. And because Korean society is based on Confucian respect for one's superiors, any businessman who continues to miss afternoons at the office for his golf game will appear unpatriotic.

Shocking degeneration had occurred in the younger generation - illustrated most graphically by the emergence of the so-called Orange tribe. These dissolute individuals, the sons and daughters of rich and prominent Koreans, were doing what the children of the rich do anywhere in the world: driving fast cars, wearing expensive clothes, taking drugs and engaging in casual sex.

No one was quite sure why these people were named the Orange tribe. One theory was that oranges are imported fruit in Korea, and that the habits of these young people were similarly brought in from abroad. The other theory is that the orange has a suggestion of sensuality and sexual promise. Anyway, for a while, a woman who was offered oranges or an orange juice by a man knew that to accept was tantamount to agreeing to sex.

The local press indulged in a voyeuristic feast of fake indignation about the practices of the Orange tribe - and the accompanying Kumquat crowd who very much wanted to be part of the Orange tribe but did not have the money or the style to qualify. Kumquats are miniature oranges.

In this highly conservative society where women are still expected to be virgins when they marry (and are prepared to go to plastic surgery specialists to re-establish their credentials if necessary), the incidence of casual sex attracted a high level of prurient interest. Much was made of the young woman who declared herself unable to remember all the names of the men she had slept with.

But now the guardians of the 'sweat and tears' philosophy have hit back. All the bars and nightclubs in the trendy Kangnam area of Seoul sporting nameplates in foreign languages have been told they must remove these signs of Western decadence. Nor will young hot-rods be able to show off their expensive cars any more - traffic has been banned from 8pm to 4am along 'Rodeo Alley', the main drag in Kangnam which is lined with bars and designer shops. Tax officials have hinted that they will begin investigating the finances of the parents of Orange tribers, while the police are cracking down on drug abuse.

A gang-rape of some teenage girls by apparently deviant members of the Orange tribe in an apartment block in Kangnam last month was immediately put down to Western influences. A policeman said he thought 'all these foreign videos and foreign thinking are ruining our society'.

Exit the Orange tribe. Exit also the decadent practice of pay rises: President Kim has ordered a pay freeze for all public sector officials this year, and has called on private business to observe a price freeze as well. 'Everybody should work harder, conserve more and save more,' he told the nation.

Apart from giving up golf, Mr Kim also gave another earnest pledge: 'I will never accept money from any businessman or any other person during my five-year tenure.' Political corruption, although yet to reach the stratospheric levels of the Japanese, is none the less endemic in Korea. But in his campaign to fashion a new Korea, the President wants to make politics more 'transparent'. Now that might really bring forth sweat and tears.