Down & Out

With a stunned look on his face, Rhee Sang Hoon, couldn’t help but ask the same futile question: "Why did it all have to happen right now?" Seven months ago, employers at the major commercial bank where Rhee, a 54-year-old deputy chief of the credit card division had worked for the last 30 years, delivered the news Rhee was dreading since the onset of the financial crisis in mid-1997: "honorary retirement," the Korean euphemism for forced early retirement. "I was only four years away from my official retirement age," says Rhee. "If only the economic crisis had hit a little bit later, I would been just fine." Rhee’s story is becoming commonplace, as illustrated in the daily tales of doom and gloom broadcast on Korea’s airwaves and newspapers. Despite a $57 billion bail-out package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), unemployment has grown at an alarming rate as Korea slides deeper into its worst recession in history. The number of jobless in Korea went from 600,000 at the end of 1997, to 1.4 million by the middle of 1998, to roughly 2.5 million today. At one point, up to 10,000 people were losing their jobs every single day. Since most South Korean households depend on a single male income earner, removal from the workplace proves devastating for the entire family. The financial and psychological strain of unemployment has also started to take its toll on the stability of family life. As a result, the number of divorces and children being abandoned or entrusted to orphanages have sharply increased in the past two years. Unemployed parents have even committed collective suicide with their children on at least a few occasions in recent months.

The expectation of lifetime employment, the lack of sufficient social safety nets, and Korean cultural taboos regarding unemployment have all translated to shame and shock for Rhee and other former white-collar employees of financial institutions and large business conglomerates known as "chaebol." Unable to come to terms with his frustration and shame, Rhee lives in state of denial. Just as he has done every morning for thirty years, Rhee wakes up, dons his banker’s suit, and leaves for work. Unbeknownst to his wife or kids, however, Rhee has no job to go to, so instead of going to work, he goes for long walks or on nice days, takes naps in public places. Occasionally, Rhee will drop into "Peace House," a volunteer center that provides job counselling and free lunch for the unemployed. Yet his determination to work again isn’t for the money since his severance pay from his former employer is more than enough to feed his family. "I haven’t told my kids that I was laid off," Rhee says, "because it would be too much of a shock for them." With tears welling up, he continues: "They still wake me when I’m late getting up, so I leave and don’t come home until they’ve returned from school. It’s depressing. I understand why some people would want to commit suicide." As bad as the situation has become for Rhee and other middle class victims of the crisis, he at least has his family and his home, luxuries an increasingly large homeless population are having to forgo. "I have to survive this tough time for my family," claims Rhee, "but I am still too ashamed to tell them the truth." For millions of South Koreans, therefore, lifetime employment security has given way to shame, trauma, and psychological stress.