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.