In South Korea, objects define identity. This is the result of rapid economic growth that initially spawned a nouveau-riche culture of ostentatiously displaying wealth. The economic growth itself is precipitated by status-conscious, affirmation-hungry South Koreans who enjoy showing off their success through material goods.
The bottom line is that South Korea is a capitalist society, consumerist in nature; without constant consumption to drive economic growth, the capitalist system would fail. Consumerist tendency condones, if not drives, materialistic behavior.
But even among fellow capitalist countries, South Korea’s cultures of consumerism and materialism are striking. to the extent that Pope Francis warned young South Koreans of the dangers of materialism on a visit in 2014.
Perhaps because of its relatively recent and rapid economic growth, South Korea has become known for its nouveau-riche culture: Wealth is often flaunted in tasteless ways, including, by showing off big brand names. Louis Vuitton handbags were once dubbed “three-second bags,” because you could allegedly see one every three seconds in busy Seoul neighborhoods.
While ostentatious displays of wealth have petered out in recent years (they are at least frowned upon), sales of luxury goods have constantly increased in South Korea, unlike in Japan, Europe and the US. The emphasis has simply shifted from well-known brand names to less in-your-face items like fine jewellery and lesser-known (but more exclusive) brands.
The very source of South Korea’s meteoric economic growth was fierce competition, driven in part by obsessive comparison by Koreans with both their fellow citizens and foreign countries. South Koreans become harsh critics of each other from a young age. Kids are taught to do more — or at least more than their peers, families and strangers. “Mom’s friend’s son” is a figure South Korean parents commonly cite to motivate their kids by highlighting their comparative lack of effort and/or success.
With material goods serving as markers of social status, possessions and spending offer a shortcut to demonstrating success in the rat race. Your image and reputation are determined by what you consume, own and post on social media. Individuals are reduced to the sum of their material possessions, and relationships between couples are judged by how much they spend on gifts, restaurants and holidays for each other.
Potent status symbols include expensive cars and properties of residence. Imported cars are better than domestic cars (e.g. Hyundai), making Mercedes-Benz more popular in South Korea than in its homeland. Certain areas of Seoul (e.g. Gangnam) are immediately associated with wealth and pedigree. Even elementary school kids discuss their apartment size and parents’ cars, as if to establish rankings among themselves.
Recently, these materialist inclinations have trickled down to a form new trend, albeit much more defeatist in nature: sibal biyong, or ‘fuck-it expenses.’ Here. young South Koreans’ impulsive spending on trivialities is aimed at relieving stress; the neologism encapsulates the act of spending more money just to feel better and for no practical reason, — taking a cab to travel a short distance, for example.
South Korea is a society that values modesty only at the most superficial level. Success and power need to be seen and acknowledged. And material goods are the country’s favorite means of achieving this.
Jieun Choi authored this article.
Cover image: Billboard in Gangnam Station (Source: LG Electronics via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)