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Culture : Some Points of Light in South Korea : * Volunteerism is slowly catching on as several people are dropping out of their mainstream lives to work in Peace Corps type programs overseas.

July 09, 1991|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAGOK, South Korea — "We live in an age of selfishness," Seong Baek Ju complained.

Seong, 31, was explaining why his wife, his father and his colleagues at work opposed his decision to end a 10-year career as an agricultural extension worker and give up an annual income of $25,000 to accept a job that will pay him only $3,360 a year.

Beginning this fall, he will go to work for two years for the Agricultural Livestock Department of the government of Papua New Guinea, a Southeast Asian nation that suffers tribal strife and where life to most South Koreans appears primitive. And he will have to leave his wife, his son, 5, his daughter, 3, and his father at home.

Seong has joined Korean Youth Volunteers, a South Korean version of the U.S. Peace Corps that this nation--itself one of the largest recipients of Peace Corps volunteers and other American aid in the past--established just last year.

It is part of a fledgling foreign aid program that is coming neither naturally nor easily to South Korea.

Indeed, South Korea still bears a net foreign debt of $10 billion. Deficits have returned to the nation's trade. And large pockets of poverty still persist at home.

"Many people say that if we are well enough off to send volunteers overseas, we should be sending volunteers to help the poor at home," said Bae Yong Pha, deputy director of the Human Resources Cooperation Department of the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA).

A government program to train foreign workers that was launched years ago initially was conceived as a counter to Communist North Korean efforts to increase its influence in the Third World. But now South Korea's aid is taking on a new dimension of bolstering the nation's status by assuming an international burden in line with its economic growth. As with most donor countries, some of South Korea's aid is also tied to the purchase of its own goods and services.

Although cumulative aid loans will reach $335 million this year, official development assistance in 1990 amounted to only $89.3 million, or 0.04% of the country's gross national product. Finance Ministry officials have proposed increasing aid, including other contributions to international agencies, to $1.3 billion by 1997.

Expanding the aid program has been an uphill struggle, however. Even Korean custom has worked against it.

Confucian ideals, for example, tend to keep sons at home to care for parents and induce daughters to seek "the greatest happiness in life"--marriage and motherhood--rather than going overseas as volunteers.

Of the 47 initial volunteers who were sent last year to the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, seven dropped out and came home because of language difficulties and cultural problems, Bae said. Only 153 youths applied this year, and five of the 45 volunteers who were selected quit in the middle of a three-month training program, he added.

Seong, an only son obligated under Confucian tradition to care for his widower father, said his colleagues at work and his wife as well as his father opposed his decision.

"Everywhere I turned, they opposed me. They had trouble understanding that by sharing yourself and respecting others you wind up respecting yourself," he said. "We live in an age of selfishness.

"Of course, I will lose materially, but spiritually I will gain by becoming more mature," Seong said. "It took me four days to persuade my wife to let me go. I told her that life is not material wealth alone--that you can accumulate material wealth and lose it all in one day. But spiritual wealth you accumulate will never be lost."

The separation allowance he received when he left his job, plus income from a small farm he owns, will "keep the family going" for the two years that he is gone, he added.

Seong and 39 other volunteers are undergoing training at a government camp in this village nestled in the mountains 27 miles southeast of Seoul--learning native languages, getting accustomed to going barefoot and learning to tolerate customs that South Koreans consider barbaric, like eating food with the hands and living in homes that keep animals below the living quarters and have no water or toilets.

They also are studying the history of tribal rivalries and racial strife in countries none of them have ever visited, and preparing to cope with easy-going and slow-moving cultures that are the antithesis of their own.

Choi Youn Mee, 25, is forcing her fiance to wait two years to get married and giving up a job that paid nearly $21,000 a year to go to Nepal as coordinator of the Korea Youth Volunteer team there. She was a reporter for KBS, the governmental nationwide radio-TV network.

"That was a good job. You could watch the world go by. But I'd rather be a participator than a spectator," she said.

Her parents were initially worried, she said. "They thought Nepal was a primitive country." And her mother, "like all Korean mothers, wanted me to get married," she said.

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