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[Op-Ed] The W5,000 Lunch

Posted October. 16, 2009 08:22,   


Until the mid-1980s, a student lunchbox was a barometer for measuring household income. The kind of rice and side dishes in the lunchbox as well as whether a student brought one to school allowed others to effectively assess the student’s living conditions. A lunchbox with boiled rice, fried eggs and seasoned beef was considered top class. People in their 50s or older who experienced severe food shortages might remember drinking water to ease their hunger or hanging around school backyards or grounds at lunch time.

Lunch was originally implied “light food” to ease hunger in ancient China, when people ate just two meals a day. Now, office workers take small sandwiches or lunchboxes for lunch or buy light snacks at cafeterias or restaurants near their offices, a trend in this industrialized era. Since people generally commute long distances and work more hours, a new lunch culture has effectively emerged aimed at easing hunger between breakfast and lunch.

For salaried workers, lunch is a great opportunity to enjoy leisure time and chat, but oftentimes people agonize over choice and cost. In downtown Seoul or the city’s upscale southern district of Gangnam, finding a place where lunch costs just 5,000 won (4.30 U.S. dollars) or less is tough. If a meal costs 5,000 won or less at a restaurant in central Seoul, where rent is prohibitively high, chances are that the restaurant will use ingredients imported from China or serve leftover side dishes. Unless a restaurant is an in-house cafeteria designed to serve employees, a serving should cost at least 6,000 won. For this reason, more white-collar workers use cafeterias at government agencies and in-house cafeterias at other companies.

Lee Jae-oh, chairman of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, has gone on “a far-reaching tour” of 18 places of the people’s livelihoods in a matter of 15 days under a “one day, one site” principle. He recently caused a stir by saying, “A 5,000-won meal is a centrist and pragmatic policy for the working class,” and “The commission will disclose the innocence of civil servants.” Critics have said, “His comments are unrealistic since it costs 6,000 won (5.20 dollars) for one serving of noodles,” and “Lee is overly ambitious.” Many fancy menus at hotels and upscale restaurants easily cost over 100,000 won (86 dollars) per person when served with wine. Nonetheless, there would be no reason to find fault with Lee’s comments if he implied that civil servants should refrain from eating lavish meals on the government’s tab rather than blindly insist on the amount of 5,000 won.

Editorial Writer Kwon Sun-taek (maypole@donga.com)