Distributed June 24 2002
Copyright ©2002 by Herschel I. Grossman

Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 600 Words

Herschel I. Grossman

World Cup heralds a new Korea

The Dutch football coach Guus Hiddink, hired two years ago to coach Korea’s national team, brought with him a different set of values, including meritocracy and individual accountability. The success of those values has not gone unnoticed off the field. Whatever the outcome of the World Cup, changes to Korean society are not likely to fade with the euphoria of soccer fans.

The euphoria of fans whose team wins a major sporting event is ephemeral. But prominent professors at Korean universities tell me that the unprecedented success of the Korean team in the current World Cup competition is causing a turning point in Korean attitudes toward their own society and economy. Why?

Many Koreans, especially those who have studied or lived in the West, complain about the “cronyism” and the resulting importance of “connections” that they see as pervasive features of Korean society. They claim that cronyism is preventing Korea from catching up economically with the West, despite the fact that Korea soon will have as much human capital as Western countries.

To understand Korean cronyism we have to see it as one aspect of a set of related social conventions. Koreans accept a sense of knowing one’s place in society that seems extreme to Americans. In social interactions and in business dealings, Koreans maintain a hierarchy that seems to weight age more highly than performance. Also, although admission to elite universities is as meritocratic in Korea as in the West, the outcome of the university entrance competition has a more important and more permanent effect on one’s place in Korean society. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that in America people have to prove themselves continually, whereas in traditional Korean society people have only to prove themselves once.

What do Korean cronyism and related social conventions have to do with the World Cup? In the past cronyism apparently has been as pervasive in the selection of Korean teams for international sports competitions as in other areas of Korean society. But two years ago when the Korean soccer football association hired the Dutchman Guus Hiddink to coach the Korean national soccer team, Hiddink made it clear he would select his players based on merit alone.

The performance of the Korean team in the 2002 World Cup competition is demonstrating to every Korean in a way that is easily seen that meritocracy yields better results than cronyism. It also helps that Hiddink has been able to use his coaching skills to bring out in his team the strengths of the Korean national character: intelligence, discipline, tenacity and perseverance.

Of course, Korean traditionalists reject criticism of what Westernized Koreans call cronyism. Traditionalists argue that criticism of cronyism is really criticism of social solidarity and responsibility, which they see as positive features of Korean society. Traditionalists also argue that meritocracy implies individualism and that too much individualism and too little social solidarity and responsibility are negative features of Western society. Some traditionalists even might claim that they do not want Koreans to be as rich as Westerners if that would require Koreans to be as individualistic as Westerners.

The Hiddink phenomenon did not emerge suddenly out of nowhere. The accumulation of gradual changes that have already occurred in Korean society has made it acceptable to import a Westerner to coach the Korean national soccer team and to allow him to establish a meritocratic regime. But Hiddink has expedited the process of change, and his success has made it look revolutionary.

It remains to be seen how fast, in what ways, and with what effects Korean society will continue to change. Koreans are talking about learning the lessons of Hiddinck. But the Western model of a meritocratic society is not easy to emulate. A soccer team is a relatively simple organization. Implementing the lessons of Hiddinck throughout Korean society will present more difficult challenges. Whatever the outcome, it seems that in the case of the 2002 World Cup the effects of success in a major sporting event will not be ephemeral.

Herschel I. Grossman is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor in the Social Sciences and professor of economics at Brown University.

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