On February 10th, in what feels now like a different era, the world looked on in amazement as “Parasite”, a rip-roaring, iconoclastic South Korean film, won the Oscar for best picture. It was the first non-English-language movie ever to capture that honor. The director, Bong Joon-ho, won the best director, too. The success of “Parasite” is a sign of a flourishing arts scene in South Korea, and a potent symbol more broadly of the loosening of social and economic norms there. It is a brutal and darkly comic farce about class war. Daggers and dingy basements feature prominently. Asked after the ceremony how he was able to make such a film, Mr. Bong replied, in English: “Because I’m a fu*king weirdo.”
On the face of it, these two episodes tell two very different stories about the country. The remarkable response to the virus looks like a lesson in the benefits of the old Korea—a strong, bossy state combined with individual willingness to compromise and show self-discipline for the benefit of society as a whole. When the government suggested that people stay at home, there was widespread compliance from the start and little grumbling—unlike in America and in many European countries. Though the government never mandated social isolation, it made use of expansive powers in tracing infections, sifting through people’s mobile-phone data and credit-card records without a warrant, something it was allowed to do following legal changes prompted by the outbreak of MERS, another coronavirus, that killed 38 people in 2015.
Parliamentary elections on April 15th, in which 300 seats in the National Assembly are up for grabs, will show if South Koreans think that Mr. Moon has lived up to his promises, in fighting the pandemic and in other areas. His administration has had its own share of scandals and he has come under fire for initially downplaying the virus. Responding to a poll early in the outbreak, South Koreans professed much more faith in the center for disease control than in the president’s office.
When COVID-19 has receded, South Koreans will go back to challenging old structures and rigid expectations. Women are leading the way. They have plenty to complain about. Among rich countries, South Korea is arguably the worst place to be a working woman. Women still earn less than two-thirds of what men do. Their participation rate in the paid workforce lags that of men by 20 points. And they shoulder the vast bulk of unpaid labor in the home—not only cooking but also tirelessly coaxing their children to study for exams. Sexism is a huge problem. In 2018 two-fifths of young women surveyed by the city of Seoul said they had suffered violence from a partner. In another survey, 70% of the women polled said they had been sexually harassed at work. The gulf between what Korean men and women want from marriage is so great that many women refuse to get hitched or have children. South Korea has the world’s lowest fertility rate: the average number of children a woman can expect to have in her lifetime is 0.92. That probably will not change until men do.
Economic change can be wrenching, too. Even before COVID-19 hit, the export-led model that powered South Korea’s economic rise had come under scrutiny. Growth has slowed markedly: in 2019 the economy grew at a rate of just 2%, the lowest in a decade. Competition from China and the stalling of globalization have hurt the chaebol, South Korea’s big conglomerates, which have long been the engines of its economy.
The pandemic has already pummelled South Korea’s open economy. In the short term, it will be crucial to try to minimize the damage from the inevitable recession. But once South Korea emerges from the virus-induced slump, it needs to get back to looking for new sources of growth. One place to look is its burgeoning startup scene. President Trump laid out a three-stage process for ending U.S. lockdowns