09 December 2008

Some South Korean economics and car stuff

A bunch of crazy irrelevant things I picked up today.

First, I had a lengthy chat with a cousin, who gave me lots of insights about South Korea's military life, economy, politics, and more. Not much that I didn't discuss already, except for a few. He made sure to remind me that for almost everyone, a vote for 2MB was a vote for his business background and a potential for ending "politics as usual." Of course, 2MB has failed miserably, and we shared scathing criticism of both 2MB and his master W. We both look forward to America under Obama, and decided that we will give 2MB a chance to get things fixed and back on track (though honestly, I am extremely pessimistic about 2MB's four remaining years in power).

Second, I learned that South Korea's minimum wage is 3,867 won per hour. It's paltry, but at least there are no exceptions under any circumstances, not even part-time job (referred to by the German word "Arbeit" in everyday conversation) or restaurant table waiting. In the US, waiters and waitresses can be paid as little as $2/hr, and are expected to make up the difference to minimum wage with tips, but as tipping is usually nonexistent in South Korea, at least minimum wage must be paid. I'm also being told that if my hourly pay is under 5,000 won, no taxes will be deducted at all. An employer must report new hires to the government labor authorities, and offer them four basic insurances. It does appear that for now, labor law enforcement is pretty strict; anyone caught paying below minimum wage will be in a lot of trouble, very fast. Speaking of low-pay part-time work, Costco now is looking for Christmas seasonal help at 6,550 won per hour; at least, Costco, being the ethical progressive American merchant that it is, doesn't place limits on the applicant's age, sex, marital status, or education level, other than a minimum age of 20 (legal age for full adulthood).

Third, cell phones are so ubiquitous in South Korea that they make more sense, and are cheaper, than landlines. The national government's welfare services now include financial assistance for low-income residents in opening a cell phone account and paying monthly bills. In the US, landline phones are eligible for state-level financial assistance, but cell phones are still not. Glad to know that South Korea's welfare state makes more sense that the one back home in the US. I won't count on it to last, however, given 2MB's Reaganomics which states that the real welfare is "job creation through massive tax cuts for the rich." South Korea's tax burden has risen slowly but steadily in the past two decades, as the economy transitioned from a developing one to a developed one, and various social programs have been enacted since the 1980s; now, the tax burden is at or slightly above US levels, though still well below European levels.

Fourth, almost all merchants are required to accept credit and debit cards. Any transaction over 1,000 won can legally be done with a credit card. Any merchant refusing legal credit card transactions, just for being "too small," will have to pay hefty fines. Visa and MasterCard are the most widely used, though American Express is also common, and Japan Credit Bureau can occasionally be used at tourist traps. There is a difference between Korean domestic and foreign credit cards, however; many self-service kiosks will not accept foreign credit cards, while all cashiers can. (Korean domestic card statements show the merchant's name in Korean, while I get the merchant's arbitrarily romanized English name on my US credit card statements.) And if making a cash transaction, merchants are required to offer a Cash Transaction Receipt (현금영수증) upon request, which has additional information useful for South Korean domestic tax filing and expensing purposes, but not of much use to a foreigner. Even if I decline the Cash Transaction Receipt, I am required to be given a normal receipt, which turns out, more often than not, to be a Cash Transaction Receipt anyway. A South Korean taxpayer can keep track of his/her expenses at the government website http://현금영수증.kr. Yes, a website address can be in Korean!

Fifth, disruptive activities in the subway trains - including vending, leafletting, soliciting, or giving speeches (notably Christian missionaries) - are subject to fines. Unfortunately, this provision is rarely, if ever, enforced, and even then, the fine is only 100,000 won. And in case of vendors, people do seem to like them; I still appreciate the leggings vendors, without whom my legs would have frozen over a few days ago!

Sixth, and the last, and this one's gonna concern me after I return to the US and trade in my BMW. Ward's Automotive in the US makes an annual list of ten most outstanding engines available for automotive use in the US, and the 2009 model year list has just come out. For the first time, a South Korean engine is on the list: Hyundai's 4.6-liter Tau V8 engine, which powers the US-market Genesis and the Kia Borrego (Mohave in the South Korean domestic market). Not bad for a company whose first engine, the Alpha, is only 15 years old. The Tau is also the only engine on this list that can run on regular unleaded gasoline. This is nice news for me, even though I won't be getting the Tau for my Genesis. I'll be content with the 3.8L V6, which, in the Hyundai nomenclature which uses Greek alphabet for engine names, is Lambda; as the letter Lambda is also a longtime symbol of the LGBT community, I'll feel great about driving my new Genesis to various LGBT venues in California. It'll certainly beat driving a pro-Nazi BMW! The Lambda is itself a nice engine that also powers the Veracruz SUV, the Azera, and the Entourage minivan (a Kia Carnival clone that's only for North America), as well as the Kia models of Sedona (Carnival in South Korea) and Amanti (Opirus in South Korea). Smaller Lambdas (3.3L) power the US-market Sonata and the new Optima (Lotze in South Korea) too.

Had I stayed on the BMW path, however, the 3-liter twin turbo, which powers the 135i, 335i, and 535i, is also on the list. But this wouldn't have ever happened. First, my original intention anyway had been to continue driving my existing 325i then replace it with a different make when it wears out; I've simply moved up the replacement. Second, even if I were in the market for another BMW, I would've refused the turbocharger due to its poorer fuel economy and reliability, and chosen the 128i, 328i, or 528i, which has the same engine but without the turbo.