South Korea is different from the United States.
In some important respects this Asian country is more like America than most of us would think. This country is a democracy with a booming economy.
But the differences are great and go beyond Korea's use of a different language and even a different alphabet than Westerners use. The differences go far beyond history and tradition. The biggest differences that I have seen during my visit this month are in the people themselves.
I saw with my own eyes how thin almost all Koreans are. Coming from the United States -- even though I live in the thinnest state -- I have been amazed to see almost no obesity here.
So, of course, I expected that almost no one in Korea would have diabetes. After all, didn't the American weight problem lead to the rapid rise of diabetes in our country?
We know that some sort of link between being overweight and having diabetes exists. We do know that being overweight doesn't cause diabetes, because two-thirds of American are overweight and about one-tenth of us have diabetes. But as our weight has gone up so too has the proportion of people with diabetes. Those two conditions have to have some association.
The Korean paradox is that this quite thin country has about the same incidence of diabetes as we do. Something else has to be at work here.
What is at work may well be work itself.
The Koreans have wrought an economic miracle. I don't know of any other country that has developed so rapidly. Just four decades ago, gross domestic product per capita was comparable with levels in the poorer countries of Africa and Asia. My Korean friends say that Korea was poorer than Ethiopia then.
When the Korean War ended in 1953 -- less than 60 years ago -- this country was completely destroyed. Now, people talk about the "Miracle on the Han River," which refers to Korea's transformation from the ashes of the Korean War to becoming the 13th largest economy in the world, according to an article that I read in this morning's Korea Herald. It now surpasses Mexico, which has more than twice as many people.
The miracle owes a lot to this country's indomitable quest for education and willingness of its people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That quest in turn owns much to the Confucian work ethic.
These people really do work hard. And long.
My friend Alex Leesong, the general counsel of i-SENS, a leading international manufacturer of blood glucose meters and test strips, told me that the Korean work week was the longest in the world. I was impressed, but had to check it out. In fact, what he told me was an understatement, according to what I read on Wikipedia.
"By far, workers in South Korea have the longest work hours among OECD countries," the international organization of the 33 developed economies. "The average South Korean works 2,390 hours each year. This is over 400 hours longer than the next longest-working country and 34 percent more hours than the average in the United States."