Korea Faces Up to Reality

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After five years as a construction site manager at Samsung, Chung Hwan Oak was more used to giving orders than taking them. So making sales calls for his new catering business turned out to be particularly hard on his pride. After bowing deeply, Chung, 49, would pitch his hot-pot lunches -- steaming vegetables seasoned with shrimps and fiery pepper sauce -- then explain how he'd lost his job at the giant conglomerate. Often people just slammed the door in his face. Those who listened didn't offer him a chair. The frosty treatment stung, but Chung knew what was behind it. In status-conscious Korea, Samsung is at the top of the job heap -- catering is near the bottom. "Running a restaurant wasn't a respectable thing to do," says Chung. "The hardest part of shifting gears was pride."

That was a year ago. Today customers are flocking to Chung as word of his tasty food spreads. Friends who once scoffed at his restaurant plans want advice on how to set up their own catering joints. The definition of what's respectable in South Korea has changed fast since economic collapse punched a hole in the Korean Dream. When the country was vaulting to economic success, parents aspired to get their sons into white-collar jobs at giant chaebol, or conglomerates, like Samsung. A year of life under the yoke of a humiliating $58 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund has crushed all that. A bright horizon of lifetime jobs and seemingly nonstop growth has suddenly dimmed. In its place: soaring unemployment, a more competitive role in the global economy and diminished expectations for a country that had been living beyond its means. MORE>>