From Miracle to Mirage: The Korean Middle Class

Myungji YangMyungji Yang, assistant professor in the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Department of Political Science, will trace fifty years of development of the middle class in South Korea in a lecture at the Center for Korean Studies Thursday, April 6, 2017. The lecture, titled “From Miracle to Mirage: The Making and Unmaking of the Korean Middle Class, 1960–2010,” will begin at 4:00 p.m. in the Center’s conference room.

Economic growth has established comfortable middle-class lifestyles as a norm in South Korea. Despite this success, Yang says, fewer people are identifying themselves as members of the middle class. Many perceive that their standard of living has deteriorated and that the possibility of upward mobility is declining.

In her talk, Yang will examine the puzzle of why the middle class that was both cause and consequence of Korea’s economic development seems to have declined. Drawing on primary archival sources and in-depth interviews from a year of field research, she will focus on the unpredictable process inherent in the scramble for middle-class status in Korea.

Yang’s research has shown that many first-generation members of the middle class achieved upward mobility by engaging in speculation and taking advantage of skyrocketing real estate prices. This contrasts with previous studies that mostly explain the rise of the middle class as a consequence of a meritocratic order that provided white-collar workers, corporate managers, and engineers in large conglomerates with higher incomes, long-term job security, and consumerist lifestyles. Through an analysis of the lives and experiences of the middle class as shaped by the housing market, she will reveal the reality behind the myth of middle-class formation in Korea.

Myungji Yang studies the politics of development using qualitative methods. Her research is particularly concerned with the nexus between authoritarian regimes, identity politics, and development in South Korea and China. Her doctoral dissertation at Brown University dealt with how authoritarian regimes nurtured the urban middle classes in South Korea and China in order to reconstruct the nation and strengthen political legitimacy.

Center for Korean Studies events are free and open to all. This presentation is supported by the Core University Program for Korean Studies through the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the Korean Studies Promotion Service of the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2015-OLU-2250005). For further information, including information regarding access for the handicapped, telephone the Center for Korean Studies at (808) 956-7041. The University of Hawai‘i is an equal opportunity/affirmative action Institution.

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