Bballi Bballi! (quick, quick)
© Getty
December 2018

Bballi Bballi! (quick, quick)

No other industrialized country has evolved from a developing into a highly industrialized nation at the breathtaking pace that Korea has seen. Unsurprisingly, as everything in the Land of the Morning Calm revolves around speed. Martin Hyun, an author of books and son of two South Koreans living in Germany, provides “tomorrow” with insights into a culture of acceleration.

​When in 2015 I temporarily moved to Korea to assume my role as technical sports director of the ice hockey games of the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Pyeongchang I personally experienced once again what it means to live in a “bballi bballi” (“quick, quick”) driven culture. Here’s a case in point: In Germany, it took me nearly two months to get my internet connection at the time and I had to wait at home for the technician to arrive sometime between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. This would be totally unthinkable in service-oriented Korea. From the time I ordered my internet connection in Korea until it was installed a possibly record-breaking two hours elapsed. The technician arrived on time at 1 p.m. as agreed and accomplished the job in just a few minutes. Life in Korea is typically hectic and fast-paced, especially in the metropolitan area of the capital city, Seoul, that’s home to half of the country’s population.

Particularly in big cities, people will often bump into you. But that shouldn’t be regarded as rude behavior. It’s simply part of life. Although Koreans are generally very polite, reserved citizens you shouldn’t expect any apologies after such involuntary body contact. Impatience beats etiquette. It’s not for no reason that Koreans, especially those in Seoul, are regarded as the Italians of Asia – including their occasional display of temper. So, unsurprisingly, even the parliament has seen flying fists among its members.

Bballi Bballi! (quick, quick)© Getty
A developing country in the past, a world leader today

The so-called Tiger State, Korea, has the world’s fastest internet. The average internet speed of about 29 Mbits/second is about twice as high as Germany’s. During the 2018 Olympics the world’s first 5G mobile network that’s planned to be implemented across the country in 2019 was tested. It’s 100 times faster than previous LTE networks. Be it in the deepest subway tunnel or on the highest mountain: Korea has near-total network coverage of 96 percent. WLAN hotspots are accessible practically anywhere as well – a condition that people in Germany can only dream of. However, that hasn’t always been the case. In the 1960s, Korea was still a developing country. The wounds inflicted by the civil war with the communist North (1950–53) were slowly starting to heal. At that time, there was one phone connection per about 300 inhabitants. Just a few decades later, Korea holds one of the top spots in the world ranking in the areas of telephony, smartphone and internet penetration.

In view of the country’s tremendous enthusiasm for technology, it’s hardly surprising that Songdo, the world’s first Smart City, was created here and that Google established its first “Campus,” a habitat for startups, on the Asian continent, in Seoul. However, as nearly always in life, there’s a downside too: In the wake of the success of high-speed internet and smartphones, rampant smartphone addiction has become a serious social issue.

Bballi Bballi! (quick, quick)© Getty
  • Position 1
    is held by South Korea in the “2018 Bloomberg Innovation Index” ahead of Sweden and Singapore.
  • 212 billion dollars
    in sales were generated by Samsung Electronics in 2017. The tech giant established in 1969 is the world leader in the TV, cell phone, smartphone, memory, semiconductor, SIM card, refrigerator and digital signature markets.
  • In 1999
    – 5 years before Facebook – “Cyworld,” the first social network, went online in South Korea.
  • 4
    of the world’s largest shipyards are located in South Korea.
  • In 1955
    the first automobiles were built in Korea under the name of Sibel. The body of the Jeep imitation was put together from old oil barrels. The fifth-largest automaker in the world, by its own account, is Hyundai-Kia Motors: another example of Korea’s rapid rise.
  • 5 production sites
    at three locations are operated by Schaeffler in Korea. They produce products for a large number of customers in the core segments of the local economy, including automotive, general industrials, electronics, semiconductors and aviation.
From 0 to 100 with steel, cars and electronics

When I started my job in Korea in 2015 the foundations for the ice rinks were in the process of being laid. International experts had doubts about the rinks being finished in time for the Olympics. I put the experts at ease and explained to them: “If there’s a country that can do it, it’s Korea.” And that’s exactly what happened and better yet: All the rinks were finished even a year before the Games. The luxury hotels for high-ranking officials in Gangneung virtually mushroomed as well: bballi bballi prevailing on construction sites too. The “Lotte World Tower” in Seoul’s Jamsil-dong district grew to an impressive height of 555 meters (1,821 feet) in the space of just five years, making the skyscraper the fifth-tallest building in the world. The adjacent “Lotte World” is even the world’s largest theme park – to mention just one more example of superlative dimensions.

Both are located in an area that as recently as in 1970 was home to merely 300 households. In spite of the construction boom, residential space is in scarce supply in Seoul; the cost of housing is among the highest in the world. Quite a few residents have to take on a second job in order to be able to afford the horrendously high rents.

The Miracle on the Han River

Now, how was it possible to achieve this rapid rise from a developing country to the eleventh-biggest economic power in such a short period of time? The “Land of the Morning Calm” for a long time used to be a pawn in the hands of the powers, Japan, China, the United States and Russia. In the 1960s, the annual per capita income of Koreans was an equivalent of 87 dollars. Today, it’s 27,500 dollars. If you ask Koreans who’s responsible for the “Miracle on the Han River” they’ll typically answer: Park Chung-hee.

​​One lazy day in summer will lead to ten hungry days in winter

Korean proverb

The former Korean president, who took power by a military coup in 1961, launched his first five-year plan in 1962. It was mainly focused on developing the country’s infrastructure, agricultural production and the promotion of light industry and further technological development. Other key areas were education and energy supply. This plan was followed by five-year plans two (1967–71, focused on promoting heavy industry), three (1972–76, focused on promoting the chemical industry), four (1977–81, continued promotion of the chemical and heavy industry, but economic setback due to political turmoil and the oil crisis, end of the military dictatorship), five (1982–86, transformation departing from the heavy and chemical industries toward technology-intensive sectors like electronics and precision-engineered machines) and six (1987–91, promotion of small- and medium-size enterprises and strategic industries such as the automotive, mechanical engineering and electronics sectors). In the process of their accelerated development, the Koreans did not shy away from adapting the success formulas of other countries – in order to subsequently improve them.

Left behind by the pace of modernization

It took Europe 300 years to put the system of modern capitalism on solid ground. South Korea accomplished this fundamental social transformation under two military dictatorships between 1960 and 1980, said Hwang Sok-yong, one of South Korea’s most famous writers, in 2014, in a documentary produced by the Frenchman Jacques Debs. According to Hwang, the process of modernization overran Korea within a very short period of time. In the view of the novelist, who doesn’t shy away from controversy, in addition to the ability of carefully weighing and challenging decisions, social justice fell by the wayside as well. In fact, according to an OECD study, Korea, in spite of significant increases in recent years, is still spending less than 15 percent of its gross domestic product on social benefits and services. For comparison: France and Finland spending over 30 percent of their GDP are deemed front runners in this respect. Like in many industrial nations, the gap between rich and poor keeps widening in Korea too.

Another issue: In terms of old-age poverty, Korea ranks in one of the less-than-pleasant top spots among the leading industrial nations as well. This is also partly attributable to the fact that the rapid social transformation has made the model of large families in which the members support each other obsolete. Many retirees feel useless, fear that they won’t be able to make ends meet and would rather end their life voluntarily than live in undignified conditions. Policies to counter this trend are urgently needed in the light of demographics reflecting fewer and fewer young people that will be able to support their elders. Korea’s birthrate is one of the lowest in the world. One in two Korean women doesn’t want to have any children at all – a choice also driven by the fear of being pushed into the role of homemaker and mother. In terms of emancipation, Korea’s male-dominated society has some catching up to do as well.

The hungry spirit of the Koreans

The country’s technological upswing initiated and planned by Park Chung-hee was massively accelerated by another factor: the Koreans’ “hungry spirit” – as my uncle, a successful civil engineer from Seoul, likes to call it. This unbridled and unbending will to “make a believer out of the world” has a major part in Korea’s evolution from a developing country into one of the leading industrial nations. There’s nothing that goes against the ambitious Koreans’ grain more than taking the easy way out, novelist Hwang Sok-yong writes as well. 60-hour work weeks are the rule rather than the exception. Peter Schreyer, the German designer who has been drawing sleek-looking body shells for Hyundai and Kia since 2006, in a television documentary was obviously impressed as well by the eagerness of the Koreans who, he said, were not only driven by personal ambition but also by pride in their country.

Bballi Bballi! (quick, quick)
Lights as prosperity indicators: Whereas South Korea rose to the level of a rich high-tech nation, the North remains in the poverty of the post-war years – and in darkness at nighttime© Getty

The Koreans’ hungry spirit is also manifest in education. The competition for acceptance by a “SKY” university is massive. SKY stands for the three top Korean universities, Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei. High school students spend up to 16 hours a day cramming for good grades in order to be accepted by one of the top universities. If the young academic manages to graduate with honors access to the coveted social elites is practically guaranteed. Parents are willing to spend a major portion of their income on the education of their children. However, the educational frenzy paired with a fear of failure has a downside as well: Korea is one of the countries with the highest teenage suicide rates.

Even so, more and more foreign students are flocking to South Korea. Seoul already ranks in the top ten of the most popular student cities listed on the website of Like the country as a whole, the number of universities has been seeing massive growth. While Korea still had 70 colleges and universities in 1965 (14 public and 56 private ones) the number had more than tripled 50 years later (46 public and 179 private ones). The educational turbo has produced a country-wide academization level of 70 percent. As a result, many graduates are no longer able to find adequate jobs at home and start looking abroad, so it’s definitely within the realm of possibilities that a young couple will follow my parents’ example and seek their fortune in Germany …

Martin Hyun
Author Martin Hyun
Martin Hyun was born in 1979, in Krefeld, Germany, and since 1993 has been a “happy German citizen.” Hyun studied political science and international relations in the United States and Belgium. He made headlines as the first ice hockey Bundesliga pro of Korean descent and as a player in Germany’s National Junior Division. His first book was published in 2008. In his bestseller, “Gebrauchsanweisung für Südkorea” (“User Manual for South Korea”), he reveals for instance why you have to stand your ground in the “Korean triathlon” – eating, drinking, singing.