Monthly Archives: November 2015



Engaging South Korea provides an opportunity to know about a country that is not usually mentioned in the literature dealing about social stratification. It also is not a norm to cite the country in classroom discussions about social class. Nevertheless, it is highly probable to unfold an interesting aspect of social stratification in South Korea. It is highly observable that the so-called K-pop culture has lately invaded many Filipino homes through its music, television series, and subtitled movies.  With advance information technology coupled with loose implementation of anti-piracy laws, pirated DVDs featuring Korean drama, Korean concerts, and Korean films proliferate in stalls, markets and sidewalks at a very affordable price. And these find way to the Filipino home in compatibility with low-priced, surplus DVD players and television set. It is notable that many of these surplus appliances come from South Korea too.

Filipinos with internet connection watch these numerous shows online. Downloaded video files from the internet by highly techie individuals are shared to friends using removable flash disks. It has become a pastime among college students and other netbook and laptop users to do the so-called movie marathons.  This entails watching a number of videos continuously for hours in one setting.


This paper mainly intended to find out the significance of class differences in South Korea.  Specifically, it sought to describe the following:

  1. Lifestyle and Class Consciousness in South Korea
  2. Social, Economic, and Occupational Mobility in South Korea
  3. South Korea’s Place in the Global Stratification


This paper is limited only to finding out about the selected aspects of social stratification in South Korea.  It only dealt with lifestyle and class consciousness; social, economic and occupational mobility; and South Korea’s place in the global stratification. There is no empirical data collection, only from existing reputable secondary data sources that included social stratification information about South Korea.


      This paper primarily obtained data from secondary sources, offline and online. In-text citations and proper referencing using the American Sociological Association (ASA) format are observed. To appreciate more and highlight the data on South Korea, relevant data from selected countries are mentioned, as appropriate.

The Locale: Getting to Know South Korea

South Korea is a country in East Asia, surrounded by China, Russia and North Korea, and Japan (Wright 2011). The official name of South Korea is Republic of Korea (Daehan Minguk), with abbreviation of KR.  Its capital is the city of Seoul. There are six other large cities: Pusan, Taegu, Inch’on, Kwangju, Taejon, and Ulsan.  The nature of government is Democratic Republic with the President as head of state and the Prime Minister as head of the government (Kurain 2007).  Ethnic majority is composed of Koreans, the language is Korean and the unit of currency is South Korean Won. It takes 1,195 South Korean won to have one US dollar; 25 for one Philippine peso.

South Korea has a land area of 98,480 square kilometres with a population of 48 million in 2005 (Kurain 2007) that increased to 50.7 million by mid-2015 (PRB 2015).  Religions are Christianity and Buddhism. There are two national holidays that are the same in the Philippines: New Year’s Day (January 1) and Christmas (December 25).  The rest of the national holidays are unique only in the country, which include: Independence Movement Day (March 1), Children’s Day (May 5), Memorial Day (June 6), Constitution Day (July 17), Independence Day (September 27), Thanksgiving Day (September 27), Armed Forces Day (October 1), National Foundation Day (October 3), and Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Korean Alphabet (October 9). There are various Buddhist and Confucian festivals.

South Korea is a rugged, mountainous country.  Only 15 percent of its land is made up of plains, and these are mainly along the coast.  It has a continental climate, with dry, cold winters and hot, humid summers.  Snowfall is not uncommon.

Along with North Korea, South Korea is the most ethnically and linguistically homogenous nation in the world.  Virtually the entire population is of Korean origin, and there is no evidence of non-Mongoloid admixture.  There is no national ethnic minority. There are non-Korean population estimated at no more than 20 thousand are mainly Chinese (Kurain 2007).

Findings on Significance of Class Differences in South Korea

      This section describes class differences in South Korea following the objectives of the paper. There are three major subsections, particularly: lifestyle and class consciousness in South Korea; social, economic and occupational mobility; and South Korea’s place in the global stratification.

Data herein presented are in consonance with the manner the concepts are understood within the perspectives of social stratification.

  1. Lifestyle and Class Consciousness in South Korea

In this subsection, lifestyle significant to social stratification in South Korea covers conscription, environment, living conditions, food and nutrition, and customs. Presence or absence of class consciousness in these lifestyles is considered.


This refers to compulsory military service of South Korean males aged 18 to 35 years old. The Korean Peninsula is one of the world’s most heavily armed regions. The combined North and South Korean armed forces total some 1.4 million.  South Korea’s armed forces personnel were estimated to total 665,000 in 1999. The nation spent $14.5 billion on military preparedness in 2003, or 2.7 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

All male citizens are liable for compulsory military service at age 20, though they can volunteer at 18. They serve between 24 and 28 months, depending on the branch of service (Kurain 2007). When the Korean actor, Rain, took a leave from acting to do his compulsory military service, the news made his fans in awe. Rain has been listed as number 1 of the Time magazine’s 100 influential people in years 2011, 2006 and 2007. He played the lead role in the Hollywood action film Ninja and other supporting roles in many international release films. He did not ask for deferment or special treatment. Though there are cases of postponement applications done by other celebrities, which are granted by the government based on acceptable reasons with proper documentation (Jolla 2015; Kim 2013).


Only a little more than half of the Korean population has piped water because of a dearth of storage and purification facilities.  A lack of sewage treatment and direct discharges of industrial plants contaminate many water supplies (Kurain 2007). In rural areas, World Bank (2015) recorded access to water source (not just piped) at 88 percent in 2010 that had not increased until at present. The overuse of pesticides and fertilizers on farmland has led to the runoff of these chemicals into rivers, adding to the pollutant burden (Kurain 2007).

Lately, a development in water quality in Korea’s major drinking water supply sources is noted for the Seoul metropolitan area where some delicate fish and water insects that live only in clean water, are being detected. Elsewhere, however, only 3 of the 26 Class I lakes and 4 out of 16 Class II lakes met the standard in 2007 (WEPA 2015).

Living Conditions

Living conditions are quite good in South Korea (Kurain 20017). When it comes to residence, housing is modern and well heated through systems of pipes under floors. Traditional houses are one-story structures shaped like Ls or Us. Rooms serve multiple functions; people typically eat and sleep on the floor. Approximately 90% of South Korea’s land area is mountainous, so most buildings are up instead of out (Thorpe 2012).  Homes for rent are apartments, officetels, and villas, which rental prices vary.

In a middle-class area in Seoul, the monthly rent for an apartment top at 1 million won (850 USD or about 40,000 PhP). New apartments with state-of-the-art appliances like shoe closets that automatically disinfect shoes with ultraviolet light may cost over 2 million won, but above 3 million in a sought-after neighborhood. If one wants to live alongside Korean celebrities and moguls, one needs deposits of 100 million won. But, in the countryside, ultra-modern three-bedroom apartments can be rented for less than 500,000 won.

Officetels (studio type) come between 600,000 and 800,000 won per month in Seoul; higher in trendy neighborhoods. The Korean villa usually stands no more than four stories, does not have an elevator, made out of granite, usually consist of eight to ten apartments. Because they are less popular, villas tend to cost less than officetels or apartments, despite offering more space. In rural area, one-bedroom villa costs about 400,000 won (about 16,000 PhP), but will cost more expensive in the city.

When it comes to public transportation, it can be described as cheap and efficient (Kurain 20017). Buses go to more places and leave on time, but timetables and bus stop names are rarely in English (Internations 2015). So, travelling by bus can be confusing and less comfortable.  Also, drivers do not speak English. With trains, however, are four classes that provide differential services for passengers’ comfort in varying costs.

Food and Nutrition

Korean food features rice and soup at nearly every meal, along with many vegetables, stews made of meat and vegetables, and spicy pickled cabbage called kimchi. Most food is extremely spicy. A fancy dish is pulgogi, meat that is grilled on the table and then wrapped in lettuce leaves. Ginseng, ginger, and green tea are all popular drinks.

Two generations ago, farming fueled South Korea’s economy with farmers accounted for half the population; presently, they represent only 6.2 percent (Ahn and Muller 2013). This rapid transformation was the outcome of the central government’s development and trade liberalization policies that result to only 20-percent self-sufficiency in grain production, compared with the 1970s when it was at 70 percent.

If South Korean chaebols (business conglomerates) and the politicians that represent them had their way, small farmers — the majority of South Korea’s agricultural sector — would all but disappear under the logic that they are uncompetitive in the global marketplace.  Then the country will rely on import of food from developing countries.


Koreans do not address older people by first names, only by title. A younger Korean will not look an older person in the eye. Bowing is fairly common. Koreans find politeness extremely important and do not like direct confrontation or criticism. When a group of people go out to dinner, one person pays the bill for the entire group; it is rude to offer to help. In social settings, men and women typically socialize separately, in different rooms if possible.

Most women choose to stay home after marrying and having children; it is customary for a husband to turn over his entire pay package to his wife, who uses it for household expenses and gives her husband an allowance for his needs.

  1. Social, Economic, and Occupational Mobility in South Korea

Social Mobility

Observable in South Korea are the operational class system and meritocracy. Behind the triumphant global achievements in South Korea is a phenomenon of widening economic polarisation (Lee 2015). The national economy that once achieved rapid growth with relative equality has now turned into the second most unequal economy among the OECD countries (Koo 2014).

Class System

The alleged major sources of increasing income inequality closely relate to the neoliberal transformation of the South Korean economy. The South Korean working class, which used to be relatively homogeneous in terms of the job market and wage conditions, has become internally divided — and this reflects growing income inequality (Koo 2014). Deregulation policies that addressed the Asian crisis consequently form a new underclass, the low-income self-employed and irregular workers who both have low income, job insecurity, minimal social protection, and dismal prospects for promotion or social mobility. One-third identify as being in the lowest class in South Korean society with little prospect for upward social mobility.


Another source of inequality is the changing salary system adopted by large South Korean firms. Since the late 1990s, a general trend among South Korean firms has been to discard the old seniority-based salary system and adopt the American style ability-based salary system. With this change, the wage gap between professional and managerial workers and the rest of the workforce has widened greatly (Koo 2014). The working class is becoming increasingly stratified and fragmented, as the middle class dwindles (Lee 2015).

Economic Mobility

South Korea enjoys a leading role in trade among the nations of the world. Its major exports include electronic and electrical equipment, machinery, steel, automobiles, ships, clothing, and textiles. South Korea’s leading trade partners are the United States, which purchases 17.8 percent of these goods, and Japan, which buys 18.2 percent (Kurain 2007).

South Korea’s economy has undergone a dramatic transformation from an impoverished nation in the 50s largely dependent on agriculture to modern industrial power with skilled workforce of over 20 million, as well as a leading nation in world trade (Kurain 2007). There is a remarkable economic growth manifested by the increase in its GDP in recent decades: From 1963 to 1978 the annual GDP growth rate was 10 percent, one of the highest in the world. In 1963 per capita GDP was $100; in 2000 per capita GDP was $16,100. Its gross national income (GNI) is recorded at $34,620 in 2014 (PRB 2015), more than double to the East Asian region’s average at only $16,040.

However, when South Koreans were asked if they consider inequality in their country as a problem, more than half (66%) said that it is.  South Korea is one of the categorized advanced countries in this survey that used the subjective approach. Majority (85%) agreed that the current economic system in their country generally favors the wealthy and is not fair to most people in their country (PewGlobal 2013).

Occupational Mobility

Recent trends in occupational mobility in South Korea had positive development on gender aspect. In January 1998 the National Assembly revised the 1987 Equal Employment Act to include tougher penalties to be imposed on companies found to discriminate against women in hiring and promotions (Kurain 2007). Women make up about 42 percent of the workforce, though typically holding traditionally female jobs, as teachers, nurses, secretaries, and tour guides (Kurain 2007). The Ministry of Women’s Affairs continued its efforts to expand employment opportunities; and the military and service academies continued to expand opportunities for women. The amended Family Law, which went into effect in 1991, permits women to head a household, recognizes a wife’s right to a portion of the couple’s property, and allows a woman to maintain greater contact with her offspring after a divorce.

Occupational mobility can also be seen in the shift from agricultural engagements to technological. Agricultural occupations paved way to electronics and technology, manufacturing, and services that dominate the economy. There are many jobs for skilled workers. Confucian standards of behavior apply in the workplace, and junior employees are expected to respect their elders. In 2003 the National Assembly passed a law reducing the workweek from six to five days.

  1. Global Stratification

 In a global map identifying high-income nations of the world, South Korea is listed as one of the countries along with the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, the nations of Western Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Hong Kong (part of the People’s Republic of China), Japan, the Russian Federation, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand (Macionis 2012).

Societies throughout the world differ in the rigidity and extent of their social stratification and their overall standard of living.  Based on Gini coefficients obtained from Central Intelligence Agency (2010) and World Bank (2010), there is just moderate extent of income inequality in South Korea. Comparably, Philippines is categorized under those countries with severe extent of inequality.  Saudi Arabia has extreme inequality while Greenland has low inequality (CIA and WB in Macionis 2012).

Simple measures of well-being

A well-placed country definitely begets better off citizens. A country’s state can be described through three simple measures of well-being are life expectancy, infant mortality, and access to health services. A look into each of these in South Korea reinforces the country’s place in the global stratification.

Life Expectancy

The better the economic state of a country, the higher the life expectancy. For both sexes, the Population Reference Bureau (2015) recorded a life expectancy for South Koreans at 82 years old, just like Sweden, Iceland, Norway and Australia. South Korean males are expected to live up to 79 years old while the females expectedly live longer at 85 years old. This is one of the highest life expectancy recorded along with other high income countries at 83 years old like Japan, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain (PRB 2015). Philippines even only have 69 years old life expectancy.

To be expected to live for over 80 years old is too far to reach in least developed countries with only less than 50 years old life expectancy.  Countries like Swaziland (in Southern Africa) and Sierra Leone (in W. Africa) only have 49 and 50 years old life expectancy, respectively.

Infant Mortality

This phenomenon refers to infant deaths per 1,000 live births. The better the economic state of a country, the lower is the infant mortality. South Korea has infant mortality of 3 per 1,000 live births. This is one of the lowest infant mortality in the world, with other more developed countries like Iceland at 1.7 and Singapore at 1.8. This is extremely low compared to least developed countries like Central African Republic’s 109 and Democratic Republic of Congo at 108.

Access to Health Services

The government supplies health care to all citizens; workers pay small portions of their paychecks to cover health insurance, which includes dental care (Kurain 2007; Song 2009). Under the National Health Insurance Program, coverage includes the insured person’s spouse, descendants, brothers or sisters, and direct lineal ascendants (Song 2009).  National insurance also covers traditional remedies such as acupuncture, moxibustion, massage, baths, and herbal treatment s such as ginseng (Kurain 2007).  There is no differential treatment in health care among Koreans based on economic status.

Doctors, dentists, nurses, and midwives are licensed with the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs (Song, 2009). Health care delivery facilities are classified into three tiers based on the number of beds and degree of specialization: the first tier consists of clinics (0–30 beds); the second consists of small hospitals (31–100 beds) and general hospitals (101–700 beds); the third tier includes university hospitals and general hospitals with more than 700 beds (Choi in Goldsmith 2012). All South Koreans have access to these facilities, with a referral system for the third tier.

Categorization of Countries

Gross National Income (GNI)

This measures the total output of goods and services produced by residents of a country each year plus the income from nonresident sources, divided by the size of the population. As of June of 2015, South Korea’s population is estimated at 50.7 million (PRB 2015). This is not even half of the Philippines’ estimated population at 103 million of the same record date.

This disparity in population count is a reverse with the gross national income (GNI), which is recorded in the Philippines to be only at 8,300 in US dollars as compared to the high 34,620 USD in South Korea (PRB 2015). South Korea’s GNI quadrupled that of the Philippines.

Leveling Off by Income and Gross Domestic Product

Countries are classified into three levels either as first, second or third world according to certain criteria. But, the “three worlds” model is already less useful today since it was a product of Cold War politics by which the capitalist West (the First World) faced off against the socialist East (the Second World) while other nations (the Third World) remained more or less on the sidelines. The sweeping changes in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the former Soviet Union mean that a distinctive Second World no longer exists (Macionis 2013).

Instead, income as basis in modestly revised system of classification group countries to be either in high-, middle- or low-income. High-income countries have the highest overall standards of living with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) greater than $12,000.  South Korea’s per capita GDP is estimated at $35,300 (CIA 2014), almost triple greater for the minimum amount set for high-income countries. Although, this is just one-third of Qatar’s over a hundred per capita GDP.

Middle-income countries have a standard of living about average for the world as a whole; their per capita GDP is less than $12,000 but greater than $2,500. The Philippines per capita GDP at $7,000 fits in this category.   Low-income countries have a low standard of living in which most people are poor; the per capita GDP is less than $2,500 (United Nations Development Programme, 2010; World Bank, 2011).

Global Networks of Power and Influence

Global stratification involves nations in a large and integrated network of both economic and political relationships (Andersen and Taylor 2013). In Immanuel Wallerstein’s explanation of global stratification using a model of the “capitalist world economy,” the prosperity of some nations and the poverty and dependency of other countries result from a global economic system (Macionis 2013). Because the world economy is based in the high-income countries, it is capitalist in character.  Based on Wallerstein’s descriptions and with its present economic state, South Korea can be one of the core countries.

Wallerstein considered the rich nations as core countries in the world economic system that control and profit most from the world system.  Semiperipheral countries surround the core countries, structurally and geographically, semi-industrialized and represent a kind of middle class, playing a middleman role, extracting profits from the poor countries and passing those profits on to the core countries. Peripheral countries are those in the bottom of the world stratification system; poor, largely agricultural countries which natural resources exploited by the core countries.


This paper described South Korea’s social stratification in terms of its lifestyle and class consciousness; social, economic and occupational mobility; and its place in the global stratification. Lifestyle particularly covers conscription, environment, living conditions, food and nutrition, and customs with presence or absence of class consciousness in these lifestyles considered.

Conscription or the South Korean military service is required of males only, a differential treatment between sexes; but there is no complaint about this from both parties. Among South Korean males, no one is above or below any other Korean male.  Whether he is as influential and a renowned celebrity like Rain or a university student, or a farmer, he has to render his 28 months to the Korean government.  Hence, there is no social stratification in terms of social class, except gender, and definitely no class consciousness accompanying this particular Korean lifestyle on military service.

With regards to the environment, there is notable difference in access to clean and safe water sources between the rural and the urban areas in South Korea.  While the urban Seoul has cleaner water even for the fishes to dwell, this same situation cannot be said of rural areas.

With living conditions, there is social stratification in homes, which largely depends on affordability. Home types vary in price and location. Modernized apartments in urban Seoul cost much compared to villas outside of Seoul. And with regards to public transport, those who do not compromise comfort with costs may take the more expensive trains.  There is a mark of the “haves” and the “have nots” with regards to public transport.

There is no difference in Korean lifestyle when it comes to food normally consumed; the South Korean palate shares a penchant for spicy food and usually grilled meat eaten with vegetables. But, in food production there is less favor in agricultural efforts compared to technological.

With the South Korean customs, there is evident social stratification in terms of status, age and sex that heightens class consciousness of both parties; those with higher stature holding titles in the society served by their subordinates; the young towards the old; and the females in relation to males.

Social mobility in South Korea is based on class system and meritocracy. Based on gross national income and per capita gross domestic product, there is improved economic mobility in South Korea as years advance. Though extent of social stratification in South Korea is recorded, by objective approach, as moderate compared to the Philippine’s severe extent, the South Korean people regard it to be problematic.

Using the subjective approach, more than half of the South Koreans admitted that the gap between the rich and the poor is a problem.  Despite this economic inequality, there is clear improvement in occupational mobility in South Korea with its increased percentage of women in the workforce.  Occupational mobility is also manifested in a major shift from agricultural to technological jobs. Percentage of being urban in Korea is at 82% compared to Philippines’ 44% only.  South Korea’s urban percentage is slightly ahead to Canada’s 80% and United States’ 81%. Such urban state of these countries provides more avenues to the maximal operations of the world’s technological advancements, the major sources of income in this decade.  This is amplified with the 2015 Forbes list of world’s billionaires, with a number of whom wealth comes mostly from technology.

Topping on the list is Microsoft’s Bill Gates, followed by telecom’s Carlos Slim Helu, and Oracle’s Larry Ellison (Top 5). Others include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (#16), taxi online servicing Uber Technologies’ Camp and Kalanick (#283), Twitter’s Williams (#43) and Dorsey (#38), Google’s five executives, and many others.  These are individual billionaires whose citizenship are mostly from high-income or core countries.


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