A New Low for South Korean Corporate Culture: 100 km March in Freezing Weather

Earlier this week, South Korea’s KB Kookmin Bank came under fire for a rather unorthodox way of training new employees. Around 400 new recruits marched 100 km from Cheonan, south of Seoul, over a two-day period, in a temperature that plunged to -6 Celsius.

KB Kookmin Bank is one of South Korea’s largest banks and the principal subsidiary of KB Financial Group.

For millennials in South Korea, getting a job is a tough deal. Almost one out of every ten youths (officially defined as aged 15 to 29) is jobless in South Korea. The fourth-largest economy in Asia has been struggling with stagnant growth, and young people have borne the brunt of the downturn even when compared to their counterparts in Japan, where the youth unemployment rate is 5.1 percent.

Even after scoring a job in the gloomy job market, young adults in South Korea struggle to keep up with the corporate culture defined by rigid hierarchy, obedience and loyalty — the values inculcated to new employees even before they officially begin their work.

Several employees of KB Kookmin Bank fainted during the march according to local online news outlet OhMyNews. Apart from imposing the physically straining exercise, the bank reportedly gave female employees birth control pills to delay their menstruation. The bank admitted the distribution of pills but also said their motive has been misunderstood.

“The training camp doesn’t allow recruits to leave during the week so they cannot go to the pharmacy even if they are sick. So to prepare for the needs, we prepared several emergency medicines including birth control pills,” a KB Kookmin Bank PR representative who withheld his name told Korea Exposé. “We already informed female employees about the march. We gave the pills out of consideration [for female employees] but I think the new employees understood it in a different way. It’s a matter of perception.”

He said the march is merely a small part of their nine-week training for new employees. When asked about the purpose of the 100 km march, the PR rep said, “It’s difficult for me to answer that question. But the march has been in existence for more than a decade, even when I entered the bank. And I am very satisfied with my work now.”

KB Kookmin Bank is not the only South Korean corporation enforcing rigorous physical training for their pup employees. POSCO — the fifth-largest steel-producer in the world — sends their new employees to a “Marine boot camp” involving guerrilla-style training, landing fall training, rappelling and obstacles jumping according to the company blog.

Vladimir Tikhonov, a Korean Studies professor at the University of Oslo and vocal critic of South Korean capitalism, points out that the bank’s march reflects the militaristic corporate culture in South Korea. “Is this a corporation, a military force, or a totalitarian state?” Tikhonov wrote on his Facebook page. “A 100 km march is not a symbol of competitive spirit. It’s a symbol of a command-obedience system.” Tikhonov says such practice is a reminder of militaristic “labor force management culture” from the 1970s to 80s — the period ruled by two successive military dictators.


Not Many Options

New employees generally have little choice but to put up with the status quo. Young adults in South Korea spend a lot of time and money to score a job. In a hyper-competitive job market, young adults need to offer a lot more than a polished resume — ranging from a professional photo, high scores on foreign language aptitude tests such as TOEFL (the fee for one-time test-taking is $190 in South Korea) and even plastic surgery to improve chances during interviews. Many companies such as Samsung and Hyundai offer their own aptitude tests— which a private industry has grown to help job seekers prepare for.

Young adults spend on average 3.84 million won ($3,600) a year for the job market preparation according to the 2018 Shinhan Bank report. More than 45 percent of young adults spend more than six months on preparations to enter the job market.

Having put in all these efforts, people are committed to surviving in their jobs regardless of injustices they face at work. Employees in South Korea stay in the same company for the average of 12 years, says a report published in 2016 by the recruitment agency Saramin, which surveyed employees of top 80 South Korean companies by sales.

But Tikhonov says long gone are the days of permanent employment in South Korea. The country was brutally hit by the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 which wiped out many well-known companies. Early (meaning forced) retirement has become the norm. Part-time labor has also grown.

“It’s neo-liberalism combined with militarism. Despite employees grinding through hardships, the company can make an employee in his late 40s take early retirement if doing so maximizes the short-term financial profit of the company,” wrote Tikhonov.

“But the biggest problem is that there’s no room in this system for workers to be aware of and assert their rights. State-level totalitarianism may be no more, but corporate-level totalitarianism still remains.”


Cover image: A KB Koomin Bank branch (Juwon Park/Korea Exposé)



Juwon is a journalist at Korea Exposé covering all things business. She’s previously worked as a TV producer in Channel News Asia in Singapore and has interned for Bloomberg, AP and Google. Juwon is a proud owner of her dog Noah and a graduate of Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.