by Michael Roberts
Koreans have decided to impeach their President Park Geun-hye
over corruption charges. Last Friday the country’s top court upheld an
earlier impeachment vote, officially ousting Park Geun-hye, South
Korea’s first female leader, from office. This follows months of
protests by South Koreans alarmed at claims of bribery,
influence-peddling and even shamanistic cult rituals in the presidential
Blue House. The demonstrations were more than 1m strong. An impeachment
motion easily passed the legislature.
Park is the most unpopular South Korean leader since the country
became a democracy in the late 1980s. The scandal ensnared senior
government officials and business figures, including Lee Jae-yong,
the acting head of Samsung, who denied bribery, corruption and other
charges at the first hearing in his trial last week. Samsung apparently
donated 43bn won ($40m) – more than any other firm – to the
foundations run by the president’s confidant, Choi Soon-sil.
Choi is the Rasputin to Korea’s Park. She is the daughter of a South Korean Shamanistic–Evangelical cult leader, Choi Tae-min. Her ex-husband is Park’s former chief of staff Chung Yoon-hoi and dressage athlete Chung Yoo-ra
is their daughter. Samsung allegedly gave millions of euros to fund
Choi’s daughter’s equestrian training in Germany. Choi is in detention,
accused of using her close ties with Park to force local firms to
“donate” nearly $70m (£60m) to her non-profit foundations, which Choi
allegedly used for personal gain.
It looks likely Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer and
political veteran from the opposition Democratic party, will win snap
presidential polls in May. Mr Moon has won admirers among the country’s
younger generation for his “progressive values” and pledges to tackle
youth unemployment, which stands at a record high since the Asian crisis
of 1997-8. Despite what his opponents say, he is no communist.
Korea’s political turmoil is yet another example of how incumbent
governments around the world have suffered the price of failure and
exposure since the Long Depression began in 2009 after the global
financial crash of 2007 and the Great Recession of 2008-9.
The mainstream view is that Korea is a capitalist success story.
Unlike other so-called ‘emerging economies’ in the post 1950 period,
which have struggle to close the gap in output and living standards with
the leading imperialist countries like the US, the UK or Japan, Korea
has made substantial progress. Between 1960s and the 1980s, Korea’s
economy expanded by an average of 8% a year in real national output.
Per capital GDP rose from $104 in 1962 to $5,438 in 1989, and reached
the $20,000 level just before the global financial crash. So per capita
income rose from 5% of the US in 1960 to around 55%.
This progress was made possible because Korea embarked on, and
adhered to, a state-directed industrialisation and export strategy for
nearly 50 years. The manufacturing sector grew from 14.3% of GDP in 1962
to 30.3% in 1987. Within two generations, Korea vaulted into the OECD,
its goods and services became known around the globe, and its national
corporate champions entered the ranks of the world’s most recognized
companies. In 2012, Korea became the seventh global member of the
’20-50′ club (population surpassing 50m with per capita income of
$20,000), the supposed definition of a major capitalist economy.
Marx’s law of profitability can provide an underlying explanation of
the success of Korean capitalism in the period from the 1960s after the
Korean war to the end of the 1970s. While the major capitalist
economies experienced a fall in profitability from about the mid-1960s
to the early 1980s, Korean capital had high and rising rates of profit.
The Korean rate of profit has been measured by several different
authors including myself, but probably the best and most thorough
measurements have been by Esteban Maito and Seongjin Jeong, the editor
Maito finds that the Korean rate of profit rose from the 1960s to the late 1970s. (Maito, Esteban – The historical transience of capital. The downward tren in the rate of profit since XIX century ). And that was the peak.
Jeong presents the most comprehensive analysis of trends in the rate of profit
on Korean capital. Jeong finds that the rate of profit fell from a
peak in 1978 to a low in 2002. And the decline in the rate over the
1980s and 1990s was the underlying cause of the crisis and slump of
1997, part of the so-called Asian crisis. “The 1997 crisis was
intimately related to a broader problem of declining capitalist
profitability. While the rate of profit has recovered since that
crisis”, Jeong says, “its
2002 level still remains at only one-third of the level of 1978. This
suggests that the Korean economy remains in the middle of its long
Jeong also shows that Marx’s law of profitability, based on a rising
organic composition of capital, provides the underlying cause for this
fall in profitability. The era of Park Jung Hee, which saw a limited
stabilisation of profitability, was only possible because of intensified
exploitation of the Korean working class in the so-called neoliberal
period of the 1980s, delivering a rise in the rate of surplus value or
exploitation, the main counteracting factor to the tendency of the rate
of profit to fall. But even that factor could not overcome the eventual
fall in profitability in the 1990s that finally culminated in the slump
of 1997, ironically just as profitability in the major economies
peaked. In the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the South Korean economy suffered a liquidity crunch and had to rely on a bailout by the IMF.
The Asian crisis that hit Korea so hard led to a sharp devaluation of
capital values (through the writing off of bankrupt companies and
rising unemployment), followed by more neoliberal measures that boosted
profitability. But as Maito and my own measures of profitability show,
after the 2001 mild global recession, Korean profitability resumed its
decline, leading up to the global financial collapse of 2008. Economic
growth was stopped in its tracks in 2009.
Since then, Korean capitalism has become part of the Long
Depression. Underlying trend growth has weakened from 7% a year in the
1990s to just 3% now.
Moreover, Korean capitalism now faces serious structural challenges,
many of which imply a further decline in potential growth. Korea has
one of the lowest birth rates in the world and one of the world’s most
rapidly aging societies. The working age population is projected to peak
this year and decline rapidly thereafter, depressing potential
employment and growth. The overall population is expected to start
declining after 2025.
Korea’s economic success came on the back of exports, but that heavy
reliance may now be a liability in a world of slowing trade and with the
prospect of the end of globalisation and the rise of protectionism
after the election of President Donald Trump in the US. With exports
exceeding 50% of GDP—one of the highest shares among advanced
economies—Korea is heavily exposed to any shocks or change in China and
the US, particularly from China, its largest trading partner. Some of
the heavy industrial sectors that underpinned Korea’s past growth—for
instance, shipbuilding, shipping, steel, and petrochemicals—are now
facing bleak prospects globally given the trade slowdown and competition
from China. Korean capital is under severe pressure.
Moreover, South Korea’s economy is still dominated by oligopolistic chaebol
that are now being squeezed at the low end by expanding Chinese
manufacturers and at the high end by Japanese players who have benefited
from a deliberately-weakened yen. Exporters are creating fewer jobs in
South Korea as the chaebol move production offshore to
look for cheaper labour. That has left the domestic economy hurting:
small and medium-sized businesses are still failing and the high-value
services sector is lagging well behind other countries. “This has raised concerns about Korea’s traditional catch-up strategy led by exports produced by large chaebol companies”, the OECD said in a report last year.
In the 1990s, Korean capitalists adopted neoliberal employment
policies by keeping much of its workers on casual temporary contracts.
The share of temporary workers was nearly 22% in 2014, double the OECD
average. But this led to slowing productivity and under-investment in
skills. Labor productivity rose at an average annual rate of 5.5% in
1990-2011, but it has stagnated since then and remains only 40% of the
three most productive OECD countries. Labor productivity is
particularly low in the service sector—much lower than in peer economies
and only half that of manufacturing and much lower in smaller
Korean capital prospered on the backs of overworked staff, working
long hours and by avoiding any social security. The Basic Livelihood
Security Program (BLSP), introduced in 2000, provides cash and in-kind
benefits to the most vulnerable, but is substantially less generous than
the OECD average. The National Pension System (NPS) currently covers
about one-third of the elderly and the OECD reports that pension
benefits were only around one-quarter of the average wage in 2015.
This has led to increasing household debt: many retirees borrow to
open (risky) small businesses, in an attempt to supplement their
incomes. Total social spending amounts to just 10% of GDP, less than
half the OECD average, while household debt rose steadily from 40% of
GDP in the early 1990s to nearly 90% today. At the same time, corporate
debt has been consistently high at about 100% over the last decade.
This high and rising debt indicates that Korean capital is no capable of
getting a healthy and rising rate of profit and is forced to borrow to
grow – increasing the impact of any future slump.
Back in 2012, the now disgraced Park Geun-hye pledged to rebuild the
‘middle class’ and increase its size to 70% of society. This has turned
out to be a sham. Instead, there has been increasing economic
polarisation in the Long Depression. Economic inequality increased
noticeably during and after the 1997 crisis and the Great Recession of
2008-9. South Korea’s average gini coefficient — a measure of inequality
— for 1990–1995 was 0.258, but with rising inequality its coefficient
increased to 0.298 in 1999. It continued to increase, reaching 0.315 in
2010. The same trend can be seen in income distribution: the share held
by the top 10% of income holders divided by that of the bottom 10% has
increased from 3.30 in 1990 to 4.90 in 2010. The income share of the top
1% was 16.6% of national income in 2012, not far short of the extremes
in the US and much worse than in Japan. The most recent statistics
released by a government source indicate that as much as 73% of Seoul
residents identified themselves as belonging to the ‘lower class’.
The Great Recession has increased the precarious position of Korean
workers and produced an even sharper cleavage between regularly employed
workers on standard contracts and irregularly employed workers (those
who are limited-term, part-time, temporary or dispatched), increasing
the latter from 27% of the working population in 2002 to 34% in 2011.
This means that approximately one-third of South Korean workers suffer
from insecure job conditions, receiving only around 60% of regular
workers’ wages with no medical insurance, severance pay or company
Since the late 1990s, a general trend among South Korean firms has
been to discard the old seniority-based salary system and adopt the
American style ability-based salary system. With this change, the wage
gap between professional and managerial workers and the rest of the
workforce has widened greatly. As the South Korean economy has moved
towards being knowledge-based, the value of scarce skills and knowledge
has increased and globalised business sectors have begun to offer
extremely high salaries to attract talent.
So significant income disparities that have long existed between
South Korea’s conglomerate firms and medium to small-sized firms have
become even greater in recent years. South Korea’s top 1% of income
earners are most likely to be employed in the leading conglomerates,
like Samsung, Hyundai and LG, which have grown into truly world-class
companies and become very profitable.
Finally, in South Korea, as in most societies, wealth inequality is
much larger than earned income inequality. In 2012, the top 10% of the
population possessed 46% of the country’s total wealth. The bottom 50%
possessed only 9.5%. This wealth inequality emerged primarily from the
booming real estate market. But in recent years, the stock market and
other financial investments have replaced the real estate market as the
major means of wealth accumulation.
According to Statistics Korea, the average monthly household income
of the top 10% was 10,627,099 won. This is 5.1 times higher than that
in 1990, which was 2,097,826 won. For the bottom of 10%, the figure
increased only 3.6 times from 248,027 won to 896,393 won. So the gap
between these two groups increased from 8.5 times to 11.9 times. The
data is based on 8,700 households, not including the extremely poor
or the top chaebol families, so the actual gap appears to be much larger.
One out of six people live with less than 10 million won per year and
one out of four households are more often in the red than in the black.
The poverty rate of people over 65 years old is 48.5%, which is 3.4
times higher than that of the OECD average. Moreover, the suicide rate
is among the highest in the world. Korean capitalism may appear to have
been a relative success by world standards over the last 50 years, but
it has been at the expense of its people.
The future of Korean capitalism is tied up with the future of global
capital. No national economy can escape that. But there are specific
challenges for Korean capital too. The biggest and possibly the most
immediate is what happens with North Korea. If and when the
Stalinist-type regime falls there, Korean capital is no position to
integrate the people of the north into the capitalist system of the
south. The cost that West German capital and economy suffered when the
Berlin Wall fell and Germany was united again was significant and held
back one of the most successful capitalist economies for a decade. The
disruption to Korean capital would be very much greater, especially if
this should happen in this period of economic stagnation and political
Then there is Korean capital’s longer term future. The slowing of
world trade everywhere is damaging to Korean capitalism, but this
slowdown appears to morphing into the end of the period of so-called
globalisation that world capitalism has benefited from since the early
1980s. Regional trade agreements like TPP and TTIP are in the rubbish
bin, thanks to Donald Trump, while he talks of tariffs on imports into
the US and forcing American capital back to the US. The next global
recession could be an even bigger hit to Korean capital than the last.
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