In South Korea, New President Faces a Tangle of Economic Problems

He faces daunting obstacles as he tries to overhaul entrenched practices and deliver on ambitious campaign promises in a country that has yet to complete the tough transition from tiger economy to developed society.

Mr. Moon, whose party spent nearly a decade in opposition, “is a very sincere person, and I think he will try his best, but it’s a much bigger problem,” said Gi-wook Shin, director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford. “It’s not something that you can fix by tweaking one or two issues. They are all related to each other.”

In the food court of a student lounge at Yonsei, Lee Ji-won, 23, a public administration major, said her friends often described the moribund state of their country as “Hell Chosun,” a reference to the last dynasty of Korea, which lasted for five centuries.

Ms. Lee, who aspires to be a lawyer, said she worried about eventually having to take care of her parents and grandparents. Although just over half of voters in their 20s and 30s cast their ballots for Mr. Moon, according to exit polls, Ms. Lee did not vote for him. She said she was not convinced that he would be able to pay for his economic policy prescriptions.

Photo

Oh Sung-min in his sushi restaurant in Seoul. He said he was preparing to close as part of a plan to pay off the debts he incurred trying to keep it afloat.

Credit
Jean Chung for The New York Times

During the past decade when conservatives were in power, they tried to recapture the high-growth years that characterized South Korea’s dynamic postwar rise from poverty. Much of that growth was turbocharged by chaebol, the family-controlled conglomerates like Hyundai and Samsung that dominate the economy and in which vast wealth is concentrated.

Because the chaebol tend to guarantee lifetime employment to an elite group of employees, those who do not secure these jobs have grown disaffected. And since the chaebol effectively wield monopolistic powers over their suppliers, workers at smaller businesses that depend on the large companies for their revenue often suffer from depressed wages and tough working conditions.

Those factors have exacerbated income inequality in South Korea, and young people in particular are affected as they scramble to compete for a small pool of prestigious jobs at the chaebol or accept lower-paid work at smaller companies. In many cases, they cannot find jobs at all. The youth unemployment rate here is nearly 10 percent.

In a country with one of the lowest birthrates in the world and a rapidly aging society, improving conditions for young South Koreans is vital.

“Koreans really have to think hard about how to motivate young people and meet them part way, not only with job opportunities but better working environments,”…

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