As the world frets about the North, South Koreans try to relax
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SOUTH KOREANS are packing their bags. Perhaps 1.3m of them will leave the country this week. The last remaining international flights are selling out fast. Tickets on trains out of the capital, Seoul, are a hot commodity too. A few Seoulites have been sleeping at train stations, in the hope of nabbing one. The frantic exodus has nothing to do with the latest exchange of barbs between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s ruler (see Banyan). Instead, it marks the start of Chuseok, the harvest festival, which usually lasts for three days but this year will stretch for ten. That is thanks to Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, who decreed an extra day off to join up a series of tantalisingly close public holidays and weekends.
Mr Moon reckons Koreans need a break. There is plenty of evidence to support the idea. Workers in South Korea toil for more hours each year than those in any other member of the OECD except for Mexico. In 2015 more than 20% of employees slogged for at least 60 hours a week, compared with 9% in Japan and 4% in America.
Even when they have the right to time off, many do not claim it. According to a survey published in July by the Korea Tourism Organisation, on average salaried workers take fewer than eight of their 15 annual holiday days. “There’s a sense that if you want to further your career or get a promotion, you have to show loyalty to the company by working longer hours, late at night or [at] weekends,” says Lee Byoung-hoon, a sociologist at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.
Mr Moon promised more downtime before he was elected in May. He pledged to make taking holidays mandatory and to consider increasing the entitlement to 20 days to protect what one adviser calls “the right to rest”. The extended Chuseok could be the first of many extra one-off breaks. Mr Moon is also practising what he preaches. Within a fortnight of his inauguration, he took a Monday off.
But more than a third of Koreans will work over the holiday, according to one survey. Many small businesses will stay open. Older workers are less convinced by the president’s vision of a life of leisure. Mr Lee says the “workaholic mentality” is an “old-fashioned perception from the development era” that followed the Korean war, when workers were encouraged to toil long hours to make the nation rich. Kim Tae-hyun, a 64-year-old maintenance worker, will work 12-hour shifts as normal this week. He rolls his eyes at younger Koreans’ desire for a break. “I think ten days’ unbroken holiday is a strain on employers,” he says, gulping a little fresh air outside his office. “In Europe, they have one or two months off. But not in our country. It’s not the way our system works.”