When the Korean government announced late last year that the New Year holiday would be cut from the customary three days to just one, the austerity measure drew sighs here, but few complaints. Being asked to give up two holidays is just another sign of the times in Korea.
Koreans shrug their shoulders and say the country is now in the 'IMF Era,' as though explaining away a plague of locusts or a seven-year drought. The 'IMF,' of course, refers to the International Monetary Fund, which bailed out the country with $60 billion in emergency loans last year in exchange for tough 'structural reforms' in the national economy.
Every facet of life here now seems to be touched by IMF-induced austerity. Store windows display 'IMF Sale' signs to pull in shoppers, and restaurants offer 'IMF menus' for budget-conscious diners.
It goes deeper than that. Nearly everyone, it seems, knows someone who has been 'structurally reformed' out of his or her job. 'I share your pain' has become a form of greeting. And the numbers of street venders and homeless are up noticeably.
In the local vernacular, IMF has come to stand for 'I Am Fired' or, expletive deleted, 'I Am F*****.'
Given the current climate, no one (but the automakers) is especially shocked that car sales here slid 50 percent last year, with no bottom in sight. Who's going to shop for big-ticket items like a new car when food and hearth can no longer be taken for granted?
A special wrath seems to have surfaced - perhaps resurfaced - here for the owners of import vehicles. Always viewed as politically incorrect if not rude, the European and American vehicles that were starting to come into some vogue are now viewed as outright subversive. They flagrantly raise the question: How dare you purchase a foreign automobile when the country needs your money?
Sales of imported vehicles have dropped right off the radar. We're talking about a 75 percent drop last year, to 2,075 units, divvied up among 12 or so importers. It makes you wonder why they bother at all.
General Motors, for one, isn't. They're now going into their second year without any Korean distribution, and have hunkered down into a not-even-answering-the-phone kind of waiting game.
It could be a long await, because the national temper shows few signs of improving.
Acts of vandalism against imported cars, denial of parking privileges in the corporate parking lot and even threats of being fired for driving an import have become pretty common here.
Some import executives here are convinced that the chaebol, the big conglomerates that are the country's biggest employers, have agreed among themselves to ban employees - unofficially of course - from driving imported cars.
Drivers of imported cars also complain of being singled out unfairly by local cops. 'That's what you get for driving an imported car' is a commonly heard explanation from cops ticketing drivers of foreign cars.
Wayne Chumley, president of Chrysler Korea Sales Ltd., has firsthand knowledge of this.
Chumley, who was driving in a Dodge Caravan with Alisa Maher, director of DaimlerChrysler's Governmental Affairs Office in Washington, was stopped and ticketed by the Korean highway patrol recently for driving in a passenger car-only lane.
True, Chumley should not have been in the lane because the Caravan is classified as a commercial vehicle here. But at the time he was pulled over, the Caravan was travelling between a large truck and a Kia Carnival van.
Neither was stopped. Message received.
'This selective enforcement of the law is getting to be a problem,' Chumley says.
Chrysler, it should be noted, was the import sales leader in Korea last year. It sold 619 units.
At those levels, it's clear that Chrysler and the other import brands here share much in common with most Koreans - they, too, 'share the pain.'