Mr. Kim didn’t quite know how to relate to me during our little visits. He spoke to me in terms most familiar to him, i.e. money, and would often give me little pep talks about what he saw in me and thought I was capable of. That is, what he thought I was capable of earning. He frequently encouraged me to open an English academy. The more I stressed that I wasn’t cut out for running my own business, the more he’d pile on the praise. My eyes would roll, but that’s just the way Mr. Kim was.
There was something about the topic of money that fascinated Mr. Kim. Whenever it came up, he’d speak in the most animated way, licking his lips like a lizard and keeping his back straight. On warmer days his temples would get a little sweaty and his shirt would become noticeably clammy. The effect was something more than a caffeine rush but less than a full-on aphrodisiac. I admit that I used to indulge him just for the sake of observing him.
For all his intense monomania, Mr. Kim seemed unusually forgetful. He’d tell the same money-related stories over and over and introduce them anew each and every time. It’s one thing to begin a story with “Did I tell you the story about…?” but entirely another to begin again as though prior tellings never occurred. Mr. Kim was neither stupid nor old. He graduated from an electrical engineering program at KAIST—a very prestigious science and technology university in Korea. He was a whiz with numbers and good at English, though he wasn’t a very good businessman (which is another story).
The thing that really bothered me about our exchanges was that Mr. Kim knew I had heard these stories already—some of them as many as five times over the previous few months—but he told them anyway. It was a quirk of our conversations for him to begin a story and for me to pretend to be hearing it for the first time. As time went on, it felt more like a ritual of insanity than a simple quirk. I was worried that one of my friends might sit in on a few of our chats, recognize a story and mention that it had been told before. Then Mr. Kim and I would be faced with an awkward psychological impasse.
Doesn’t he know that this has all been said before, and if so, why doesn’t he say so?
Fortunately, Mr. Kim and I never had to confront this reality. He’d retell accounts and stories and I’d listen again. Each time I’d feign the same emotions at the right points, but never a moment too soon; a look of surprise here; a prodding question there; and either a burst of laughter at the end or a solemn tut tut to conclude his more somber tales. We’d both no doubt be thinking, “Doesn’t he know?” , but it simply never came up.
Mr. Kim’s favorite story was, of course, about money. His brother owned a pizza shop but sold it for a handsome profit so that he could study full-time to become a real-estate agent. In his studies, the brother learned of a government scheme to get more poor people into new apartment buildings under construction. All they’d have to put down was a million won—depositing it in a special account with the bank—and their names would be entered into a lottery for apartments being built. When a name was chosen, that person could either choose to buy it at a discount or sell it and collect a small profit, usually a few million won.
Lucky Lotto fever swept the Kim family and soon everyone eligible had a million won deposited in his name and a little bank book as proof. The real-estate brother was raking it in since he had gotten into the scheme early. There’s a six-month waiting period before a name is first entered into a lottery. Mr. Kim licked his lizard lips and coated his temples in sweat recounting the lottery scheme again and again during those six months. To keep from getting bored with the same story, each time I’d interject a little kernel of doubt about what looked to me like an inflating housing bubble.
It wasn’t until Mr. Kim suggested that I, a foreigner, see about getting involved in the housing lottery myself that I went into full doubter mode. He’d reassure me that all I needed to do was deposit a million won in an account for six months and cross my fingers. If I was selected, just sell the apartment to the next loser as the price rises in the later stages of construction and voila! money for nothing. “But what if nobody wants to buy it off of me?” was my simple pin prick. This exact thing happened to all those “flippers” during the American housing bubble. The market simply ran out of bigger losers to toss hot potatoes to.
Mr. Kim had an assuaging answer every time. “That’s why it’s safer to enter into lotteries for apartments that are always in high demand, like those built by trusted construction companies such as Hyundai Group’s construction subsidiaries.” He had a point. Having come directly from the epicenter of the housing crisis, however, I clung to my doubts. The Great Depression shaped the way my grandparents looked at the world, just as the housing bubble shaped the way I see things now.
I never took Mr. Kim up on the suggestion—I doubt a foreigner with my visa status would qualify anyway—but he left me with a sentence that I’ll never forget. Regarding the stability of Hyundai, he said, “I don’t think there’s a housing bubble in Korea, but if there is, Hyundai construction projects will probably be the safest bet because if Hyundai fails, Korea fails.”
Most people residing outside Korea probably don’t know that Hyundai builds the most housing units of any construction company in Korea. It’s much more than a car company. To adapt this to the U.S., imagine living in a suburban neighborhood built entirely by General Motors—and GM building the most housing units in the nation. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Especially when GM is hooked up to the taxpayer-funded corporate welfare IV. To get a better idea of how this works, imagine that the U.S. government is instead getting most of its sustenance from GM rather than the inverse. If those GM-constructed houses went into foreclosure in sufficient quantities, the engine of the entire country would bottom out. That’s a basic sketch of why Korea needs to avoid inflating a crazy housing bubble more than other countries.
I wish the best of luck to all the lottery-playing Kims of Korea. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about and I’m just unusually cautious when it comes to housing. Or maybe all hell will break loose in a few years.