Sunday, April 06, 2008

New Korean elitism

In the photo is Jungwook Hong, who's now running for parliament. He wrote his autobiography in the early 1990's right after he finished college, mainly about his experience in U.S. elite schools. Inspired by John F. Kennedy, he went to the same high school as Kennedy and went to Harvard. The first edition of the book sold more than a million copies in Korea, and I also own a copy, which I read twice when I was in junior high. I don't know why other people went crazy over his book, but to me, it was one of the most inspirational books I'd ever read at that time. Back then, he was one of rare Koreans who went to an Ivy League school, an achievement great enough to make me admire him as a teenage kid.

Then everyone, including me, forgot about him for a while before he came out with the second edition of his book a few years ago. The new edition has additional chapters about what he had been up to after college, where he majored in East Asian study. He went to Beijing University to do a master's degree, but only to be disappointed at the quality of education there, so he dropped out. Instead, he decided to go to law school in the states, and went to Stanford law school. After law school, he took the same path as many elite Americans, working at Wall Street investment banks, including Lehman Brothers, specializing in corporate M&A.

And he came back to Korea and took over a media company publishing a major English-language newspaper, which many people saw as a stepping stone to become a politician. The English-language newspaper market in Korea is small - circulation is about 50,000 at the most. To make the company profitable, he launched a Korean-language business paper, which, however, has big tabloid-style entertainment coverage. And he resigned as the CEO of the company this year to run for parliament as a member of the conservative ruling party.


Honestly, I was a bit surprised at his career path. I naively admired him for what I thought was a pure passion for literature and history, and the last thing I expected of him was to be an investment banker. Regardless, it'd be still interesting to see how high he can move up the political ladder in Korea. His background is unprecendented in the old, close-knit Korean political scene, and his entry to it may open up the door for many other foreign educated Koreans later, who, I think, collectively will be a key part of new elites in Korea in the near future, given the number of Koreans studying overseas now. I'm not so sure if it'll be a good thing or bad thing, but it'll be an interesting change.


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