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October 19, 2012

'Gangnam Style' tells economic truth of our day

(Continued)

TOKYO —

Many young hipsters crave living the Gangnam style someday, much as Americans watching "Gossip Girl" think: "I want that life." Psy's song and ubiquitous video parody the tony neighborhood and poke fun at the crass materialism that has consumed a country that just 15 years ago was beset by economic turmoil. Back then, amid Asia's 1997 crisis, households donated gold to shore up the national treasury. Now, the well-to-do flock to Gangnam to buy gold and other conspicuous signs of wealth. Or just to wear black and sip overpriced coffee.

By both celebrating this phenomenon and mocking it, Psy caught the bipolar nature of Korea's economy.

One face of today's South Korea is intrepid success. Remember that just four years ago, hedge funds were pegging Asia's fourth-biggest economy as the next Iceland. Far from going bust like that island nation, Korea sidestepped Wall Street's meltdown. Its 3.1 percent jobless rate is less than half the U.S.'s and a third of France's.

Yet South Koreans are having an identity crisis. They are proud of the Samsung sign towering over Times Square in New York and the Hyundai cars filling roads from Miami to Sydney. Korea has gotten as far as it can, though, with the export-led model that powered its postwar boom and restored living standards after 1997.

And then there are the costs, both real and intangible. South Korean workers put in some of the longest hours in the world. Kids experience truncated childhoods as cram schools and after-class tutoring keep them off the playground. Anxiety pervades college students jockeying for coveted jobs at the family-owned conglomerates that dominate the economy. Household debt, meanwhile, has surged as more and more South Koreans strive for the Gangnam lifestyle.

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