The Republic of Samsung
“It’s like that airport luggage scene in Toy Story” When I heard this from a fellow teacher, I knew exactly what they meant. We had just watched the solid white wall in front of us seemingly disappear before our eyes revealing a massive semiconductor assembly line. It was so large that I’m not even sure I saw the other side of the building – it seemed to go on forever.
The process, as explained by our guide, is not linear. Thus, there were hundreds of “robots” whizzing around in every direction on overhead tracks and dropping down to various machines to deliver or retrieve whatever was needed in the next step of the process. Workers, dressed in special suits to prevent contamination, moved with purpose around the giant machines. This one plant employs tens of thousands of workers and never shuts down. And we were viewing just one of several semiconductor lines on this site. My description does not do it justice, but it will have to do as photos were not allowed here or in any of the factories we visited.
We were in the “Republic of Samsung,” which accounts for 20% of Korea’s GDP. Samsung, along with Hyundai, LG and other Korean brands, are called “chaebol.” These are conglomerates that started as family businesses and have received enormous support from the Korean government. They are a part of Korea’s success story, but are also resented by many Koreans who are not part of the chaebol clique. As I wrote in my previous post, social mobility is extremely challenging in Korean society; so breaking into the clique without family ties or an elite education is nearly impossible.
In A Class of Its Own
Though Korea’s progress has come at a cost, it truly is phenomenal what South Korea has achieved since the devastation of the Korean War.
- Nearly all of Seoul was destroyed during the war – just two buildings were left untouched. Today it is a modern, sprawling, and thriving metropolis.
- South Korea is the only nation to go from a recipient of aid to a donor nation.
- South Korea was one of the poorest nations in the world after the war. Today it has the tenth largest economy and the sixth largest military.
- Working at one of the “chaebols” or other large companies comes with benefits: free meals, dormitory housing for young workers, relatively cheap housing on campus for most other workers, social status, and more.
- As Dr. Han reminded us throughout our tour, Korea is also the only nation to show such rapid growth while simultaneously growing as a democracy. No other nation has done this as Korea has. You can read more in Dr. Han’s book: Power, Place, and State-Society Relations in Korea.
- Korea has a protest culture. There are frequent and well-organized protests throughout the country. This has helped further democracy, especially when leaders have become too powerful and/or corrupt.
- The government provides free daycare and universal health care across the country.
Simply the Best
In order to witness this phenomenon up close, we were privileged to visit three corporations: Posco Steel, one of the largest steel manufacturers in the world; Hanwha Ocean, one of the world’s leading shipbuilders; and Samsung Semiconductor.
These factory tours were impressive, to say the least. I can still feel the heat from the massive steel plates being fired up on the largest conveyor belt I’ve ever seen at Posco. The thick plate of solid steel was transformed into a long thin sheet in a matter of minutes, then immediately cooled in water before being rolled up and carted away on specially built Hanwha trucks you might imagine seeing in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Standing on a narrow platform high above the equipment, we were the only humans in site. Everything was happening automatically. It was surreal, but I’ll always remember the blast of heat!
At Hanwha Ocean, we truly felt like ants as our bus drove through a city of shipbuilding. Massive tankers and cargo ships were being assembled before our eyes, and behind a more secure area military submarines were being built. We learned that the first ship built here decades ago didn’t fit together properly. The company started over again until they got it right. Korean persistence and ingenuity have as much to do with its progress as government funding and education.
An Agent of Change
Our final stop on this incredible tour was to headquarters of Citizens Coalition for Economic Justice. This activist organization, founded in 1989, uses protests and other tactics to shed light on the growing inequality in Korea and to call for change. They fight for real estate reform, changing the “chaebol” system, improved health care, environmental justice, reunification, and more. They have had much success in calling out corrupt officials and educating the public on these important issues.
I agree with Dr. Han who said that this stop, though just an hour out of eleven days, was our most important visit of the tour. I was reminded once again (as my fellow Westerly ARC activists know), that two things can be true at the same time. Korea is phenomenal, but Korea has not been phenomenal for all of its citizens.