- From Miracle to Mirage: The Making and Unmaking of the Korean Middle Class, 1960–2015 by Myungji Yang
The early 2000s ushered in an academic discussion surrounding South Korea’s social woes and concerns for the collapse of its middle class. It is, as the author epitomized, because of the importance of the middle class as a “carrier of economic and political modernization or as a coalitional actor for political transformations” (p. 8). The aftermath of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s has delineated someone who can be still categorized as the middle class from another who does not belong to the middle class anymore. That is to say, chicken restaurants owners who invest their lump sum retirement pay would be straddling on the boundary between the two categories. A more pertinent observation is that of socioeconomically [End Page 162] vulnerable people who struggle to survive by enduring longer working hours and severe working conditions—most of whom have probably been thrown from the race for upward mobility. Likewise, the un-making of the middle class has signaled turbulent circumstances across different classes. The collective anger for the collapse of the “middle class myth” followed by exacerbating inequality and economic polarization is expressed in the term “Hell Chosun,” which Yang Myungji discussed at the beginning of the concluding chapter.
In From Miracle to Mirage: The Making and Unmaking of the Korean Middle Class, 1960–2015, Yang explains the political, social, and economic circumstances surrounding the emergence and development of the middle class in Korea, as well as the articulation by the middle class against transient circumstances threatening their social status. Chapters in this book are simple and each chapter carries a clear theme. Excluding the introduction and conclusion chapters, there are three chapters which are periodically aligned: the birth of the middle class as the ideal national goal during the 1960s and 1970s; the heydays, focusing on those who settled down in the Gangnam area during the 1980s and 1990s; and the unmaking process of the middle class myths from the 1990s to the present.
As Yang mentioned, the notion of “class,” and by extension “middle class,” is a contestable term that is not neatly defined. Rather than delving into an elaborate definition of class in Korea, this book focuses more on the process and dynamics underlying the making and unmaking, via the educational system and investments on real-estate, particularly high-rise apartments in the Gangnam area. This book is additionally centered on the urban middle class in Korea, including three distinct groups: professionals and technical elites; salaried employees; as well as old middle class or petty bourgeoisie including self-employed small business owners, merchants, and shopkeepers. By complementing the definition of urban middle class based on the elaboration of socioeconomically positioned subjects, the book accords attention to the middle class as a contested notion and structural category, one that is not fixed but dependent on historical dynamics and structural forces.
Addressing the dynamics of the middle class in the third chapter, their contradictory position in terms of “dubious” characteristics is described well: when their interests are well-represented by the society, they are a main group supporting the system; however, they can be the most threatening element of the society when their social and economic values are in conflict with the system. When the stable, mundane lifestyle of [End Page 163] middle class is threatened, their frustration and collective actions can be articulated into social conflict followed by civil movement. Likewise, the strongest and most stable allies of current political regime can turn into their strongest opponents. In this sense, the most interesting chapter is the concluding chapter that highlights the issue of the dwindling middle class. It briefly provides parallel situations in other countries that share similar issues regarding the crisis of the middle class, which have resulted in political chaos or economically unstable situations. By positioning Korea’s middle class issue into contemporaneity in the...