The Korea Herald


[Weekender] Born to battle: Decoding Korea's hypercompetitive society

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : Feb. 3, 2024 - 16:01

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Han, a 30-year-old living in Seoul, was once a promising student. She entered Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul on a scholarship and secured a well-paying job at a large company upon graduation.

However, the constant competition and long work hours eventually took a toll. Despite being promoted to assistant manager before her colleagues, Han started to experience burnout.

"The cycle of competition just didn't end. I had to beat my colleagues to get promoted. I wasn't happy," Han explained.

Concluding that financial success was not the key to happiness, Han left the company two years ago. Now she does yoga, meditates, drinks tea, and sometimes works as a freelance writer. She has no plans of returning to the corporate jungle.

Han is just one of many Koreans who say they find the relentless competition in Korea unbearable. However, unlike Han, some opt to stay in the competition.

Kang, a 32-year-old lawyer, hasn’t given up yet. Although she is considered successful, she says she still feels insecure.

After graduating, Kang began her career at a small law firm, but she hopes to transition to a larger firm. Her busy life includes overtime and a focus on maintaining a "youthful appearance" to attract a husband.

Kang says she puts a lot of effort into looking younger -- dieting, taking lunch-hour appointments with a dermatologist, and doing pilates at least three days a week.

“At my age, the most important thing is now to find a good guy to marry. The most important thing now is (my) appearance. I hope to find a rich man, who owns an apartment in Seoul, and was raised by a rich family.”

Kang said most of her friends had already got married, so she was getting nervous. “However, in the end, I will win this marriage race, too, by finding a decent guy.”

The competition in Korea is not just limited to the corporate world. Yoon, a 33-year-old mom, has found herself in a new kind of race: competing to provide the best for her 3-year-old son.

Growing up, Yoon tried her best to live up to her parents' dreams of sending her to a top college in Seoul, “But their investment failed,” she said.

She studied abroad after graduating from a local college and eventually found a job after applying to nearly 100 companies. But, after getting married, she quit, feeling that her years of study and the skills she acquired counted for nothing.

“Although my parents put in tens of millions of won a year, I ended up getting a poor job, and earned slightly more than minimum wage,” she said.

Now a mom herself, Yoon says she understands her parents. She now prioritizes luxury brands and education, hoping to equip her son for the competition that she couldn't successfully navigate.

"In Korea, everything is a race. Now I try to dress my son in luxury brands, such as Moncler and Burberry, and try to put him in the best education institutes. I don’t want him to fall behind others," she said.

Han, Kang and Yoon said they all relentlessly pursued success, competing with others in various aspects of life. Yet, the race seems to have no end.

Korea’s pervasive culture of competition has become a serious social problem, as it directly affects the birthrate and mental health.

Korea faces severe mental health challenges, boasting the highest suicide rate among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries at 25.2 per 100,000 people in 2022. The number of patients with depression exceeded 1 million in 2022, reflecting a 32.8 percent increase over the past five years.

President Yoon Suk Yeol has attributed the decline in Korea’s already low birthrate to the intense competition in areas such as education. Despite government investment of over 320 trillion won ($245 billion) in the past 17 years, Korea’s total fertility rate hit a record low of 0.7 in the third quarter of 2023, well below the 2.1 replacement level needed to maintain the population.

Experts point to the waning growth of the Korean economy as one cause of the competition.

A study in the Journal of Family Theory and Review suggested that the hypercompetitive nature of Korea stems from the post-1997 economic crisis, global market liberalization, and increased competition in the labor market. This emphasis on competitiveness extends to education and employment, with younger generations investing substantial time and resources in private institutes to secure spots at prestigious universities and top-tier companies.

According to the study, rising economic uncertainty, particularly for those entering the labor market in non-standard and contract work, can intensify the competition to enter elite universities, adding that it is much harder to secure a well-paying job in Korea without a top degree.

What college someone attends also significantly influences social status in Korea, including marriage prospects, the study explored.

Researchers noted that parents invest significantly in private tutoring and after-school programs to give their children the best chance of edging out their peers in admissions, effectively entrenching economic polarization.

The perception of living in big cities as a symbol of success -- especially in and around Seoul -- compounds the problem, the study said. With Seoul's population density reaching 15,561 inhabitants per square kilometer in 2022, according to Statista, finding work and affordable housing has become exceptionally difficult, adding to the pressures of the hypercompetitive environment.

“Those living in more densely populated areas tend to focus on surviving the competition,” the Bank of Korea said in a report last year.

Experts point out that South Korea’s education system needs to be overhauled to foster a healthy society.

"Parents should not have to spend so much money on private education. Children should have time to play and engage in extracurricular activities, and lower and middle-class children should have a better chance of gaining admission to prestigious universities and to professional degree programs irrespective of parental wealth,” Andrew Eungi Kim, a professor of International Studies at Korea University, wrote for the East Asia Forum.

Balancing the development of Seoul and other provinces is also a possible solution.

“A fundamental measure should be to reduce the extreme centralization of everything in Seoul so that finding a job in a provincial area after graduating from a university there will emerge as a viable life option,” Cho Young-tae, a professor and head of the demography lab at Seoul National University, wrote in his book, “Population, Future, Coexistence.”