What’s in a number? Can we really learn much about Korea’s current situation from facts and figures, or is it a case of “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Lists are all the rage nowadays, and Notes From Korea has never been one to miss a bandwagon. With that in mind, we take a look at some of the numbers that have defined Korea in the past year.

10,000,000 – 2012 was the first year that Korea’s incoming tourist numbers topped this mark. Korea has long struggle to make a mark on Asia’s tourism scene, crowded out by China’s history, Thailand’s beaches, and Japan’s culture, but with the help of Hallyu, China’s increasing mobile middle class, Korea is starting to make a name for itself as a place to visit.

7,937 – Sun umbrellas at Haenudae Beach. I feel there is nothing I can say about this that isn’t already well demonstrated by the picture.

The umbrellas of Haeundae Beach. Pic: forum.viva.co.id

79.30 – South Korea’s life expectancy, putting it in a healthy 41st in the global rankings. It’s a stat that surprises some who view the nation as lacking in elderly care. South Korean still lags far behind Japan, which may perturb some, but Korea can take heart that it is ahead of the USA and well ahead of China.

38 – Many, many people think the FIFA world rankings are not worth the paper they are printed on (and definitely not worth the screen you’re probably reading them on), but in a broad sense they do reflect the state of Korean soccer; pretty good, not great. Korea has worryingly slipped to third place in Asia, but Australia sit only one place ahead in the global rankings, and Japan 10 in front of that. South Korea are still one of the powers of Asian football, but have yet to build on the potential they showed in late ’90s when ranked 17th.

South Korea's footballers as seen back in 2010. They're not bad, but they're not great either. Pic: AP.

34 – Korea’s economic freedom ranking, surprisingly low for a nation often accused of rampant capitalism. The Heritage Foundation (one of the publishers of the report) explains that “corruption continues to undermine the foundations of economic freedom, eroding equity and trust in government. South Korea’s long-term economic dynamism will be shaped by the outcome of ongoing debates about the proper scope of government in the free market and welfare policies.” Will this change with Lee Myung-Bak now out of power? There is likely to be less corruption, but incoming Park Geun-Hye has also hinted that she will be tougher on big business.

6 – Broadband subscriptions ranking. Korea for a long time was known as the home of fast internet and in many ways still leads the way, but other nations have caught up and surpassed it (in purely numerical terms at least.) Taken as a percentage of population Korea fairs better, coming in 4th, and only behind countries with much smaller populations. The fall from top of the table in 2007 merely shows others are following Korea’s lead, and it’s not an area Korea needs to be concerned over.

South Korea remains a technological leader with innovative products and excellent Internet speeds and access. Pic: AP.

4 – Korea’s ranking in International Patents applications and approvals. This excellent position can perhaps put paid to the idea that Korea (and Koreans) are not creative.  The type of patents applied for show that although it is an economy still reliant on heavy-industry, modern tech is of growing importance with 9% of patents coming in the Audio-Visual tech sector, just behind Semi-conductors with 10%.

2 – The country’s education ranking. South Korea was understandably celebratory at being named an education superpower, but the ranking hides many problems in the system, ranging from uncontrolled spending to separated families, and unfortunately is undoubtedly entwined with the next entry on the list ……

1 – Suicides in OECD nations. By some margin South Korea is at the top of the 2012 updated figures for per capita suicides. The problem has been spoken of, analyzed, and debated often, but many of the reason are deeply rooted in Korean society and there has been a reluctance to tackle the issue head on. However, with Park Geun-Hye promising (albeit vaguely) to put happiness at the forefront of her time in power, will these numbers start to decline?

What numbers best reflect Korea for you? Let us know and the article will be updated throughout the week.