Seoul Man: 12 Months in Korea – #11: Office Space – South Korea

Office Space
September 2003

In August the Hyundai executive, Chung Mong-Hun, jumped from the window of
his 12th floor office and fell to his death. His suicide illustrated some of
the main problems with Korea today. Corruption and the desire to save face at
all costs. Before his death, Chung Mong-Hun had undergone 42 hours of
questioning, spanning three days, concerning the illicit transfer of $400
million to North Korea. The underhand nature of some of the
transactions was under scrutiny and the beleagured Chong obviously could not
take any more.

While his case was an extreme one, the pressures of Korea can
get to those from all walks of life, both Koreans and foreigners. The nod
and wink culture here claimed another victim, and a particularly high
profile one at that. However the symptoms of these problems run deep and
while the local media has scratched the surface of the issues, for any real
changes to be made, massive changes in the social norms would have to take
place. Judging by my experiences in the past month or so, this does not look
likely to happen anytime soon.

Having left teaching, I joined a Korean company in a non teaching capacity.
Working in an office and not a classroom was something which I was looking
forward to. No more screaming kids, fights over pencils, timetables or
humiliating open days. No more “how’s the weather today? It’s sunny.” No
more inane, childish remarks, embarrassed giggles, or breathtaking
ignorance. For now I was leaving the twilight zone of the Korean classroom
and walking into the altogether more civilised office space. I should have
known better.

The work itself was challenging and in a field I am interested in. But soon
the office politics began to get wearing. As did the garbled conversations
in Korean the rest of the office would have, interspersed with “waygook” and
followed by glances in my direction and stacatto giggling. One day, one of
my co-workers started pointing at my face and laughing. “So red, so red” he
exclaimed. He bounded over and started rubbing my face with the back of his
hand. “Ooooaaaahhhhhh!” he shouted and soon the whole office was laughing at
the poor waygook who couldn’t stand the 86�F the office is normally at. To
stop this farce I literally had to grab his hand and tell him to stop.
“Stop, stop,” he mimicked and bounded off as happy as Larry. These moments of
juvenility were to be expected and I usually laughed them off, knowing that
these people really did not know any better. I often wondered how Korea
managed to become the economic powerhouse it was before the IMF crisis. I
had visions of Chaebol chairmen rubbing US congressmen’s faces in Capitol
Hill boardrooms.

More eye opening was the discrepancy between the amount of hours at the
office and the amount of actual work done. Our hours were officially ten to
seven, but every night everyone would stay later, often until ten or eleven.
Add on a 90 minute commute both ways and that’s a long day. However I soon
began to realise that when people were in the office, not much actual work was
being done. Five minutes was about the longest that anyone sat in their
seats before they were up wandering around, making tea, looking out the
window or aimlessly chit chatting. Micheal Breen, in his book The Koreans,
writes about the farmer mentality that the Koreans have. This seemingly
counter productive work ethic would seem to part of that phenomenon. Part of
the reason for the long hours goes back to the pressure to get ahead and not
lose face. For most office workers, leaving before the boss does is a no-no,
even if it entails three hours of chatting on messenger. I used to leave
when I had my work done, and I relished the look of barely concealed
contempt on the rest of the office as I strolled out.

These long hours are only part of the extreme nature of much of Korean
society. Once the boss does leave, he will often invite the staff out for
drinks. This does not mean a swift half in the local but half a dozen
bottles of soju, until everyone is rat arsed. At this point, who the boss is is immaterial. Under the influence all is forgiven, and soju can be a very
effective venting process where the stresses of conformity can be blown away
for a few hours. Unfortunately these nights out take their toll, and the
sheer amount of public sleeping that goes on in Korea is a testament to

Naturally, soon after I joined the job I was dragged along to one of these
nights out. We went to an extremely expensive Japanese restaurant where
everyone got shit faced. I was on antibiotics at the time so could not drink
alcohol. Trying to explain that to my bosses was like trying to tell them I
was a hermaphrodite. Blank looks were followed by concerned nods as they
poured another drink into my glass.

“If I drink one glass of alcohol, my intestines will melt and my testicles will dissolve.”

“Really? That’s terrible. Cheers!”

Luckily I escaped further promptings due mainly to my
foreignness. The other staff members weren’t so lucky. One of the other lads
turned red. Vomited. Came back and started drinking again. He admitted he
hates drinking, but Koreans judge their staff and their potential business
partners by the amount of booze they can hold. They will not choose the
company that has the best offer or service, but the company whose
representatives make them feel the most comfortable on a night out. Drinking
is seen as a test of manhood rather than something to be enjoyed. As my
co-worker wiped regurgitated kimchee from his face, I couldn’t help but feel
relieved I had been born thousands of miles away.

While Koreans pride themselves on being a member of the group, part of the
problem with the group culture is that it leaves little time for themselves.
The sheer stress of constantly living up to other peoples expectations means
that Koreans frequently need to blow off steam. Now, of course, that in
itself is causing the problems. The drinking culture here is so extreme that
earlier in the year the Korean government introduced a moderate drinking
night. Once a month. On a Monday. On this day Korean’s were advised to drink
‘moderately’. This can plainly illustrate the extent of the booze problem in
this country.

A recent article in the Korean newspaper, the Joongang Ilbo, pointed out
that the binge drinking phenomena was due to the strict hierarchical nature
of Korean’s lives. Under the influence, Korean’s are allowed to say and do
things that would never be tolerated in a normal situation. Another reason
for the binge culture is the limited time Koreans have for leisure
activities. Byte size entertainment is the order of the day, whether it be a
noraebang, PC room, barber shop or soju tent, Korean’s like to get to the

While this might seem convenient in theory, in practise it’s another story.
The Confucianist nature of Korean society, far from harmonising
relationships, seems to further complicate things. Who are you most
answerable too? Your boss? Your parents? Your wife? Confucianism may have
worked thousands of years ago, but into today’s intertwined society, it’s
tenets seem to be holding Koreans back. And this medieval streak running
through Korean society will have to changed if Korea is too live up to it’s
much vaunted potential.

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