South Korea's war against 'Jerry-building'


Seoul, South Korea -- WHEN THE POSH, pink "modern" Sampoong Department Store here simply collapsed on June 29, newspaper columnists noted in the midst of the sorrow that shook this little nation that the store's name meant in Korean "abundant things."

And there you have the tragic irony of the "accident" that is thought to have killed at least 400 people. This nation, which has known almost nothing but 1,000 years of defeat, has become, incredibly, the 12th richest country on Earth. The founder of Korea's mammoth Hyundai conglomerate was just named one of the world's 10 richest men, but the country itself seems to be falling down around the heads of these hard-working people.

Park Moo-Jong, city editor of the Korea Times, angrily drew up a list of recent disasters: "When an airplane crashed, killing 66 people in 1993 . . . when the Sohae Ferry capsized . . . when the Songsu Bridge over the Han River collapsed . . . city gas blew up a Taegu subway construction site, killing more than 100 morning commuters."

A "collapse horror syndrome" has been spreading across the ostensibly prosperous South, making people afraid to stay in their apartment buildings.

The country's first democratically elected leader, President Kim Young Sam, has said the Koreans must now rally to create "a society free from Jerry-building."

The tragedy has shaken Koreans to their very bones, and now it is a war not of north against south, but of corrupt speculators and inspectors against the whole society, which seems nearly overcome with the most profound sense of shame.

There were no steel girders in the cement building housing all those "abundant things" of modern life. The plans had been rigged. The city inspectors, who as late as March said it was fine, were all paid off. They're all in jail now, and there is even angry talk of the death penalty for "multiple homicide," but . . .

What is wrong with this extraordinarily successful society that, at its moment of zenith, it should be so stricken?

It is here that we get into some more complicated issues -- ones that, as a matter of fact, affect much of Asia (not to speak of Russia and Eastern Europe). Let us call them the advent of "lateral capitalism," which has arisen all over the world as societies modernize and develop (or try to) at breakneck speed -- but with out any of the underlying principles of personal responsibility that underlaid northern European capitalism when it developed organically after the Middle Ages.

A longtime and sympathetic foreign analyst of Korea explained the challenge to Korea thus: "The dimension of shame in this tragedy cannot be denied. And the closer knit a society is, the more it hurts. In Korea, they were just beginning to come out of so many years of inferiority; they were just beginning to raise their heads again."

I mentioned the "Confucian ethic" -- which involves respect for elders, balance in one's personal life and harmony, hard work and education -- as the Asian equivalent to the "Protestant ethic," which provided the philosophical-religious basis for capitalism three centuries ago.

"Yes," he said, "but what is internalized here are hard work, education and goal orientation. What is different here is the clan system -- not only bribery but 'you help me, I'll help you.' You don't owe the other people out there the same obligation you owe family and clan. And, remember, Confucius never built a department store."

Indeed, bribery on an international scale has become so bad that some economists predict it could "kill" $45 billion in trade between the United States and South Korea. They estimate that $4.5 billion is being skimmed off.

So the president's war against "Jerry-building" is not so odd as it may at first seem to Americans. It represents what is becoming a desperate need for Korea, and others in Asia, to move beyond Confucius to a broader civic ethic that makes principled behavior in civic society apply to all -- and to finally emerge from the society itself.

Ironically, the week after the tragedy the Koreans had one of the answers in their very midst. Thirty thousand members of the Lions Clubs International were holding their 78th world conference in Seoul. There are 58,000 Korean members -- extremely active and philanthropic -- with 1,300 clubs.

The second paragraph of the "Lions Code of Ethics" reads: "To seek success . . . but to accept no profit or success at the price of my own self-respect lost because of unfair advantage taken or because of questionable acts on my part."

So, in the end, one part of winning the war is to put all the miserable culprits away. The other urgent need is to bring to these societies the principled business beliefs that service groups like the Lions represent.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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