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Changing Lifestyles : Kim's Seoul of Simplicity : Populism is altering food, sports and fashion in South Korea. 'Money is sin and poverty is pride' under Kim Young Sam.


SEOUL — There he was, the new president of the Republic of South Korea, doing nothing more extraordinary than slurping a bowl of noodles on national TV.

But that simple gesture by Kim Young Sam earlier this year rocked the nation like a thunderclap. After three decades of military rule, lavish lifestyles and personal fortunes amassed on public time, the signal was clear: In Kim's new Korea, wealth and privilege are out. Populism is in.

Kim, a longtime dissident who nearly died from a hunger strike and who was inaugurated in February as the first civilian president since 1961, called for restoring traditional values of thrift and hard work. Those values, he said, had been lost amid what he calls the "Korean Disease"--corruption, luxury and moral laxity--which he blames for everything from crime to the sluggish economy.

So enter noodles; exit steaks. Roh Tae Woo, Kim's predecessor, used to serve steaks and gourmet Chinese food for lunch, inviting top chefs from the Lotte, Shilla and Walker Hill hotels to whip up meals that ran from $60 to $90 a head.

But one of Kim's first acts was to change the menu at the presidential quarters, known as the Blue House, to reflect the tastes of common people. Now kalkuksu, a traditional dish of noodles flavored with garlic and other spices, is the favored meal. Average tab: about $6 a head.

The new austerity is not Kim's alone. Taking a cue from their chief executive, bureaucrats and business elite have drastically scaled back lavish entertainment. Golfers have fled the courses and are taking up tennis or hiking instead. Luxury car dealers, real estate brokers and other peddlers of privilege are struggling to survive as South Koreans hunker down into low-key lifestyles.

"Money is sin and poverty is pride," said Sohn Jie Ae, a Korean journalist.

If steaks are out, so are kisaeng houses, high-priced entertainment places where the government and business elite would eat, drink and make deals in private rooms attended by beautiful women--sometimes dropping $600 a head. No more. The entertainment expenses of all government agencies and the ruling party have dropped to one-tenth the previous level. Kim figures the national treasury will save $1.8 billion this year.

Still, Hwang Myung Suk, owner of a cheap noodle-and-burger shop called Mom's Bakery, which is near the government offices, hasn't yet capitalized on the thrift-is-in mood. Business is down for her as well.

"This street used to be filled with government workers coming out for lunch, but no more," she said, as she nibbled on pumpkin seeds in her empty restaurant. "The workers have gone too far: They're all eating in the government cafeteria instead."

Thanks to the war on wealth, what Koreans regard as the quintessential rich man's sport, golf, is very much on the outs. Kim has closed down the Blue House golf course and declared that he would not play once during his five-year term. In attempting to open his presidency to the people, he has taken aim at anything smacking of privileged access and back-room deals, and golf is symbolic of both. Also, he was reportedly dismayed that South Korean soldiers assigned to guard the presidential palace were deployed to chase after golf balls.

Also out: luxury imported cars, high-priced villas and, as cultural icons, the children of Korea's nouveau riche known as the Orange Tribe. Small and medium-sized firms are in, while giant conglomerates, such as Hyundai, are out. Academics are in; retired generals are out.

Tuxedos are out, after Kim abolished them for state dinners. He also nixed presidential suites at the airport and turned exclusive presidential homes in Pusan, Taegu, Kwangju, Chonju and Cheju into libraries and other public places. Roh's $100,000 annual budget for souvenirs for guests (key chains and umbrellas) has been axed, as have official welcoming ceremonies at the Blue House (airport welcomes have been deemed good enough).

Kim's populist campaign appears to be more than media hype. Just ask Lee Il Ho, manager of Ojinam, a kisaeng house near the government offices in Seoul. The restaurant, a model of elegance, and class, offers 10 private rooms decorated with Oriental scrolls, Korean porcelain and silk cushions. A lovely Korean garden is enclosed by high stone walls. Average cost per head, including band and tips to the women who literally feed the guests, is $250.

But these days, the restaurant is virtually empty, and Lee says Kim's campaign is the reason.

"We've been told that government agencies have been instructed not to entertain outsiders for more than 30,000 won ($38) per head, so we've lost two-thirds of our customers," Lee said.

The restaurant owner said his monthly revenues are down by half, to $38,000. Guests are down from an average 25 per night to seven or so. When his restaurant's madam calls the old clients to beg them to come by, they typically tell her: "What's the matter with you? Don't you read the newspapers?"

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