13 June 2005
In the past, volunteer work has not played a major role in Koreans' lives, though volunteer organizations have long existed. For decades, with the country focused on economic development, volunteer work was not considered something the average person did.
But that may be changing. According to a recent survey, one in five Koreans is involved in volunteer work, despite the slow economy and the high unemployment rate.
Volunteer 21, a volunteer organization recently surveyed 1,600 Korean adults and found that 20.5 percent were involved in volunteer work. With an adult population of 37 million, that would amount to 7.5 million people. Volunteer 21 says the figure would rise to 10 million if it included middle and high school students who volunteer in order to receive academic credit.
The percentage has been rising. In 1999, the figure for the adult population was 14 percent, and in 2002 it was 16.3 percent, according to the organization.
Figures kept by the Ministry of Health and Welfare also suggest an increase. Last year, 240,535 volunteers registered with the ministry, compared to 96,425 in 2002.
Experts attribute the phenomenon to heightened public awareness and an increase in wealth in Korea.
"In advanced countries, where gap between the rich and the poor has widened with economic development, individuals or private organizations tend to fill the gaps in society, and Korea seems to be following a similar path," said Kim Tong-won, a professor of social welfare at Sungkyunkwan University.
The five-day work week, which was partially adopted last July, also seems to be a factor. The number of weekend volunteers who registered with the Welfare Ministry was up by 62.2 percent last year.
New ways to volunteer have also emerged, beyond such traditional services as visiting orphanages or poor families with food and clothes.
Lee Sang-in, an architecture major at NamSeoul University, helps build houses for the poor with his classmates. Eom Gwang-hyeon, 12, an elementary student, has been playing the violin for the elderly in Masan City since 2003. A group of corporate workers at Samsung Heavy Industries visits a print shop twice a month to make Braille books for the blind.
"In the United States, about half of the population is involved in volunteering. The economic value they create is almost five to seven percent of the nation's budget," said Kim Beom-su, a professor at Pyeongtaek University. "Compared to that, Korea still has a long way to go, but volunteering is definitely increasing."