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The booming eighties

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By John Sheridan

The 1980s were an exciting time to be in booming Seoul, with Koreans and expat English teachers alike hustling for a better economic life.

Everyone was looking forward to the 1988 Summer Olympics, the first professional baseball game was played in the old Dongdaemun Stadium on a cold blustery day in March 1982, and the bane of dictatorship was relegated to the dustbin of history after a fair and honest presidential election was held in December 1987.

With dictatorship finally gone, South Koreans could get a passport and travel abroad. Seeing the world was something that they had dreamed of doing and then did with a vengeance. And they passed their wanderlust on to the following generations, with today's young Koreans being some of the most-traveled students in the world.

More English teachers came to Seoul in the early 80s, as well. They were mostly Americans, a mixed bunch including ex-Peace Corps, academics, U.S. military personnel and wives, world travelers and teachers from Tokyo who wanted a change of urban scenery.

Some Koreans opined that these teachers were in Seoul because they weren't good enough to teach in Tokyo. Hardly. It never occurred to those Koreans that maybe the teachers preferred Seoul to Tokyo.

The Tokyo teachers, for example, moved to Seoul because it was a much less stressful place in which to teach and live. The word was: You get paid three times more in Tokyo along with three times the stress of Seoul. So I gave Tokyo a pass. Nor did Koreans try to control their English teachers the way the Japanese did.

And to paraphrase the Rolling Stones: Seoul didn't give you what you wanted, but it gave you what you needed.

I was therefore relieved when Newsweek failed to mention Seoul in a mid-80s cover story on English teaching around the world. This was selfish of me, because I knew that I had a good thing going on in Seoul and didn't want an influx of English speakers flooding the teaching market.

English teaching was mostly an American dodge, and stayed that way until the "Canadian invasion" of the mid-90s, followed by all the English-speaking peoples with the new millennium. In the 80s, if you were a Canadian named Jack or Jill, you were known as "Canadian Jack" or "Canadian Jill." By 2000, it seemed like every Jack or Jill in Seoul was a nice Canadian.

The 80s were the decade of the "Miracle on the Han," the plaudit used by foreign pundits to describe South Korea's phenomenal economic development, although its amazing political transformation from dictatorship to democracy didn't get the same praise.

Here was South Korea, a country that knew Japanese colonial rule, followed by American liberation and a fratricidal war; then it had Syngman Rhee's unstable government, Park Chung-hee's coup d'etat and dictatorship, and the chaos following Park's assassination until another coup installed the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship.

Serious street demonstrations, so-called "people power," against the Chun regime caused the United States to intervened covertly, and a fair and honest presidential election was held in December 1987.

Ironically, a three-party system allowed Roh Tae-woo, Chun's co-conspirator, to be elected president with 37 percent of the vote, effectively putting the dictatorship back into the Blue House.

Yet there were no demonstrations in the streets. Many Seoulites didn't like the election's results, but they had had the democratic election they had pined for. And the very next day everyone went back to the office to keep the "miracle" economy humming; for the economy was sacrosanct, taking precedence over politics with them.

The mighty U.S. was a palpable presence during the booming 80s, with South Korea's political and economic fate ― even survival ― seemingly in its hands, thus making Koreans too dependent on the superpower. Which is why there was talk about being "adopted" by Uncle Sam.

And given the awesome welcome that Ronald Reagan received on his 1982 presidential visit to Seoul, with Gwanghwamun's tall buildings draped in the Stars and Stripes, South Korea sure acted like a dependency, pulling out all the stops to flatter "the Gipper." And he loved it.

There were those leftist cynics who sneered at South Koreans, by saying that they were mere workaholics for American consumers. But given what Koreans have accomplished since the 80s and their country's place in today's world, it was certainly worth the effort.

South Korea needed a disciplined workforce to transform an agrarian economy into an industrial powerhouse, while providing Americans with cheap consumer goods was an economic opportunity that wasn't missed.

Moreover, South Korea was, by the late 80s, already an economic model for Southeast Asian and Eastern European countries that wanted to emulate its economic success.

Trying to emulate the German, Japanese or American model was beyond their reach, but they knew what South Korea had done with scant natural resources and believed that its model was the best way forward for their own developing economies.

After getting my two Pfizer jabs recently, I began to mull over how much South Korea has accomplished since the booming 80s, and I marveled; for the quality of a country's medical care determines the quality of its citizens' well-being and, therefore, its place in the world.

The whole process of getting the two jabs was done professionally and efficiently, which is what you would expect in a 21st-century country like South Korea.

John Sheridan ( calls himself an "urban flaneur" living in Seoul. The views expressed in the above article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.

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