Asia

The woman who liberated South Korea's housewives

South Korea is a global phenomenon. Half a century ago, it was one of the poorest countries in the world but today it is one of the most prosperous. Its capital, Seoul, is vibrant with business. The skyscrapers rival those of Manhattan.

The country has developed in a very unconventional way. It was colonised but that didn't hold it back. Its leader in the 1960s was a despot who simply directed business leaders to create industries.

So how has it done it? What are the lessons?

The BBC's Seoul correspondent Steve Evans has been speaking to five South Koreans whose working lives and tales of success illustrate the dynamism of the country.

The entrepreneur

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Media captionThe woman who invented the steam mop

For Romi Haan, necessity was the mother of invention. She hated cleaning hard Korean floors on her hands and knees so she devised a mop to take the pain out of the chore.

This salvation came in the form of a normal mop adapted with a small water tank and a heating element that generated steam to spray on the floor.

It worked so well that she decided to market it.

Today, the steam-mop is the cornerstone of the Haan Corporation, which she set up and now runs. It has 80 employees and an annual turnover of about $120m (£77m).

It was, she says, a woman's answer to a woman's problem.

"In Korea, one of the most hated household chores is cleaning the floor," she says.

"Most housewives had to be on their hands and knees cleaning the floor every day, including myself, so I figured I would have to solve this problem. I would have to liberate Korean housewives from this chore."

Korean homes have heated floors on which people sit, eating at low tables. They roll out mattresses and sleep on the floor.

Accordingly, cleaning floors is the big, back-breaking household chore, invariably undertaken by women.

Romi Haan said her husband would do many chores but not this one.

"He would say that men are not ergonomically designed to be on their hands and knees," she laughs.

She thinks that engineers just don't get women's problems.

"There are not many women engineers, especially in Korea. Engineers are men and they don't have the same needs as women.

"After working in this field for so many years, I know how the engineering works so I can apply my needs and turn it into an engineering solution."

That's the tale of an enterprising woman who saw a problem and solved it herself. Now the tale of someone at the core of the Korean experience - a teacher, and not just any teacher but one who earns half a million dollars (£319,000) a year.

The teacher

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Media captionTeacher Gwen Lee

Gwen Lee is a teacher who earns $500,000 a year. In an economy with a thirst to learn, she has turned herself into a business.

She teaches English to 1,000 people a month in classrooms and to 200,000 people online. Such is the demand for her lessons that she gets inquiries from China.

Koreans - and clearly some Chinese - see English as a passport to a better job so she is in demand.

Her staff includes a chauffeur who ferries her in a classic black town car between the classroom and her offices in the business district of Gangnam.

Her assistants field inquiries on the internet. One section of her office has been turned into a television studio where she and her cameraman record each week's online lessons.

She is, in effect, a brand and so image is important. A scruffy teacher would not get the business, so she starts her day at 07:30 with a hair and make-up artist. Through the day, she freshens her make-up 10 times.

Her day is a relentless public performance. She sometimes wonders which is the real person - the confident public persona that is constantly behind the mask of make-up or some other, more private person.

"When I am at home, I think about lots of things. And I think, 'Why do I have to be in front of all these people and be successful? What am I trying to do? What am it trying to show?'

"And all of a sudden, I feel so empty and I think, 'Am I doing the right thing?'

"But the moment I put on my make-up and stand in front of all the students in my class, I feel confident and sometimes I feel comfortable. I think both of them are me."

South Korea has many connections to the English language. The Americans have been here since 1945 and many South Koreans have family in the United States. But one of the real drives to learn English is also to get a better job - self-improvement.

It is a national as well as a personal motive. Today, South Korea is the world's leading shipbuilder, with the biggest yards and the biggest order books.

But it is an industry which has come from nothing.

The shipbuilder

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Media captionLee Sang-bok, loyal employee

Lee Sang-bok has worked in the Hyundai shipyard in Ulsan on the southern tip of South Korea since he was 16. He joined shortly after the yard was opened in 1974.

He inspects welds to make sure they are up to standard. This matters because the huge liquefied natural gas containers on LNG carriers have to be completely leak-proof.

If a ship 300m long developed a leak, the consequences would be catastrophic. Liquefied natural gas is devastatingly flammable if it escapes and turns back from liquid to gas.

Mr Lee is proud of the company which, through its wages, has kept him and his family comfortable through his adult life.

"Everything here is Hyundai," he says. "The highway I drive on is named after the founder of the company. The hospital and university is funded by Hyundai, too. There's a town joke that it's just like the Hyundai Kingdom.

"In the past 40 years, shipbuilding has become truly the centre of my life. I devoted all my youth to this company. It's become my identity. Back then it was just a fishing village - now it's become the biggest shipbuilder in the world."

One of the drivers of South Korea's growth has been the memory of poverty. The country's come from ox-carts to limousines in barely more than a generation but memories of real hunger remain. It drives businesses - like that of the maker of mail-order fried chicken.

The chicken seller

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Media captionChicken seller who counts her blessings

Chang Hyun-sook likes to count money. She and her husband have it in a safe beside their bed and they sit on the sofa and count it intently.

She started her business making and selling deep-fried chicken coated in spicy sauce 17 years ago. She can remember the hard times when she could not even afford milk for her baby. So seeing and feeling today's cash is important.

The shop and kitchen in Sokcho Central market is open from nine in the morning until nine at night, seven days a week, and she is there much of the time. She has four or five days off a year.

The real money-spinner, though, is not the trade at the store but mail order.

They post 300 boxes a day during the week and 800 boxes a day at weekends, at $15 a box.

If it is the baseball season, when people take chicken to games, demand soars. Profits on the business are now about $300,000 (£190,000) a year.

But even as her business thrives, the fear of falling back to the bad old poverty-stricken days is there. She counts her blessings - and the money.

South Korea has not been the recipient of much foreign aid for economic development. But it has had a lot of outside spending by the US military. There are still nearly 30,000 US troops in the country, on top of the 630,000 Koreans in active service.

South Korea is a very militarised country, with conscription.

The soldier

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Media captionServing in another country's army

Sgt Lee Dong Hyun is a slight, wiry soldier with legs of steel and a will of iron. He is what is called a Katusa (Korean Augmentation to the United States Army).

In other words, he is a Korean citizen serving his conscription in a unit of the US military in South Korea, a role for which he gets paid $140 a month, but with all food and accommodation provided.

For fun, he takes part in tough military competitions which involve a severe lack of sleep and hiking long distances through rough territory, often carrying a pack as heavy as a person.

It is tough legs and a determined will that keep him going.

Born in Seoul in 1993, Sgt Lee was taken to the United States by his parents at 14 so he could learn English. After high school, he returned to South Korea where he is now doing his compulsory military service.

But it is partly a means to an end. He has joined an American unit rather than a Korean unit because it keeps his English up to scratch and because ultimately he wants to return to the United States and become a citizen.

"The high points of being a Katusa is working with the greatest army in the world," he says.

"They teach you leadership and there's a lot of opportunity that goes with that."

He studied electrical engineering in university but now wants to be a lawyer.

He has views on how South Korea became prosperous.

"Back in the 1950s, Korea was rubble and now it is one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

"All that was possible because of our grandparents who worked outside our country in order to gain money for the next generation. A lot of our grandparents went to Germany to do mining work.

"Our grandmothers did nursing to support Korea, and with that income which our grandparents sent us, our country was able to develop machinery and begin to manufacture."

He is based at Camp Humphreys, soon to become the US military headquarters in South Korea. A new military hospital is being built there and it's big enough to serve any town.