LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
And now to some economic news. South Korea's economy has been thought of as an Asian tiger with high growth and productivity. But momentum there has slowed, and these days, unemployment is at its highest level in 17 years. And that appears to have hurt young people the most. A new liberal president won office with huge support from those young voters. From Seoul, NPR's Lauren Frayer reports those supporters are now looking to him for help.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Lim Hyuk-ju whispers as she shows me into her tiny apartment.
LIM HYUK-JU: (Whispering in Korean).
FRAYER: The walls are thin. The apartment is just 30 square feet - basically a walk-in closet with a toilet, shower and shared kitchen.
LIM: It's uncomfortable because when I lay down...
FRAYER: Her legs hit the back wall. Lim is 25. She graduated at the top of her high school class. She wants to be an accountant. So for now, her parents support her on a path that's typical for young South Koreans - study 15 hours a day for months or years to pass exams for jobs in government or in big family-run conglomerates like Samsung, LG and Hyundai.
LIM: (Through interpreter) All these tests and memorizing the right answers, I sometimes wonder if this is really the only way to succeed.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: This stop is Samsung, World Trade Center, Seoul. The doors are on your left.
FRAYER: So just in case you think these big conglomerates are all about making cellphones or cars, I'm in the Samsung subway station. From here, I can hop a train to the Samsung art gallery or a Hyundai hospital. In South Korea, you can buy life insurance from Samsung. You can buy face cream, cosmetics from LG.
GEOFFREY CAIN: They are just giant conglomerates that control so much of the economy on a scale just not seen in a lot of the world.
FRAYER: Geoffrey Cain trained as an anthropologist and is writing a book about Samsung. He says these big companies are so pervasive they squeeze out smaller businesses.
CAIN: They can basically tell a small business to supply them a part and just pay them whatever they want and then pay them whenever they want and give them a terrible contract.
FRAYER: Which means they struggle to grow.
CAIN: So that's what creates so few job opportunities.
FRAYER: More than 11 percent of Koreans aged 15 to 29 are out of work. For many of them, it's the dream of a job for life with a big conglomerate or nothing at all. As the economy slows, there aren't enough jobs for all the college graduates here. The new South Korean president promises to add public sector jobs. But economist Kim Gwang-suk says that's only a short-term fix.
KIM GWANG-SUK: Job creation would be business, not the government. I mean, in the long-term, all the government should do is to make an environment which companies can invest more.
FRAYER: He says the new president should help small businesses, boost entrepreneurship and reform the conglomerates. On the campaign trail, President Moon Jae-in promised to do just that. But the conglomerates remain the backbone of the Korean economy, and it's unclear whether he has the will or ability to change them. That's exactly what Baek Eui-hyun is wondering. He's 28, unemployed and browsing the test prep section at a bookstore in Seoul. He says young Koreans are frustrated.
BAEK EUI-HYUN: Of course, they don't want to, like, spend their time being stuck in a tiny room studying books for exams, but there aren't any alternatives.
FRAYER: President Moon's success may be measured not only in how he deals with North Korea but in the alternatives he offers some of his youngest voters. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Seoul.
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