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Marco Werman: For many people in South Korea, the thing at the top of their list of daily concerns is not North Korea. It's the South Korean economy. It's slowing down. And one clear sign of that is the number of karaoke rooms that are closing their doors. They're called noraebang in Korean and they're going out of business in record numbers.
But it's not just the economy that's quieting the karaoke scene, as Jason Strothers reports from Seoul. It may also have something to do with a shift in Korean workplace culture.
Jason Strothers: When you enter a noraebang, you walk right into a wall of sound. It pours out of several private rooms, where groups of friends and co-workers belt out ballads. In Korea, you go to karaoke rooms to sing with people you already know — unlike in America, where karaoke often means humiliating yourself in front of total strangers.
Jin Kyu-won: I would rather sing in front of my friends, rather than strangers. I feel like, to me, it's a kind of awkward situation. So I won't sing in front of strangers at all.
Strothers: I tagged along with Jin Kyu-won and some of her friends to a local noraebang. She's 24.
Jin Kyu-won: If I don't sing well, my friends are singing together with me. So, I feel like I have backups.
Strothers: This room comfortably fits six people on sofas. There are surround sound speakers and a large screen TV. On a table, two wireless mics, a keypad for the karaoke machine and two tambourines for backup percussion. Jin types in a song, a disco globe lights up, lyrics appear on the screen, and Jin picks up a mic.
While Jin and her friends are having fun in this room, the noraebang's owner, Myeong Ok-hee, waits in the lobby for more customers. She says it's not easy to run this place now because the economy is bad. Myeong says in the past year, she has lost about half of her customers, but she thinks things will get better and she won't have to close down.
But many other noraebang are closing down — about 1400 across South Korea in the past year. That's according to a South Korean research group, which also reports a record low in new openings of karaoke rooms. And it attributes the decrease to recent changes in Korean office party culture.
After-hour team-building outings, called "hwe-sik", are an integral part of Korean work life. Typically, a boss takes his staff out on the company card for dinner and drinks, followed by hours of karaoke in a noraebang, where the drinking continues. And that can put some employees in uncomfortable situations, especially women.
Woman: Noraebang is not only for singing.
Strothers: I spoke with a 39 year-old government worker who asked to go by her surname, Jun.
Jun: Sometimes there's forced blues time that you sometimes have to dance with your boss or your colleagues. The bodies were very close to each other and that was very unpleasant.
Strothers: She says pretty much every Korean woman she knows has experienced this situation at a noraebang hwe-sik.
Jun: Sometimes you feel it's a little bit of sexual harassment. I don't know if I can put it that way, but I felt that way sometimes.
Strothers: Jun says in the past, she felt like she couldn't refuse her senior male colleagues. But now she says she doesn't feel as pressured anymore. Lee Tae-ha, who runs a PR firm and monitors business trends, says young employees are becoming more comfortable voicing their complaints about excess drinking in karaoke rooms. He says that's partly because of a new anti-harassment law that gives workers the power to refuse their bosses outside of the office.
And another new rule: companies can no longer force staff to work more than 52 hours per week, down from 68. Lee says Koreans are more focused on improving work-life balance, and more bosses, like him, respect that.
Lee: Because some people do not want to spend more time. They want to go back home and some people do not drink a lot. Some people do not sing well.
Strothers: He says instead of noraebang and booze, his office parties now might involve dinner and a movie and wrap up with a coffee at a reasonable hour like 10 pm. Lee tells me he still enjoys singing karaoke...but now he does it on his own time with his family and friends.