Korean Nat’l Identity (2): 4 Simultaneous Sociological Transformations


In part 1, I tried to offer some comparative national cases (France, Israel, US) by which non-Koreans can get a handle on Korea. Today, I thought it would be useful to use some conceptual, rather than national, benchmarks. I can think of at least four sociological conflicts through which Korea is moving simultaneously, and hence make it such a boisterous place to live:

1. Korea is still trapped in the Cold War. Ok, this is not exactly a transformation, but it must be ranked near the top of sociological stresses here. This must be hard to grasp for westerners for whom the USSR is thankfully history and for whom salafism is current enemy. Yet living in Korea is like a 1980s timewarp. At the conferences I go to on Korea security we talk about communist infiltration (!), nuclear deterrence, throw-weight and missile ranges, the nuclear calculator, defense-in-depth, etc. Its like NATO circa 1983! (For someone raised on Red Dawn, Mad Max, and Rambo and trained in game theory, there is something disturbingly comfortable about this 80s retro. My students always giggle when I accidentally refer to Russia today as the Soviet Union. Wait! is that Duran Duran on the soundtrack?)  As you might imagine, this creates enormous continuing psychological pressure on Koreans, not to mention the continuing the cold war-style national division. The overwhelming national desire is to simply put this behind them and got on with the future, but NK keeps pulling them back

2. Korea is democratizing. Like most countries, Korea doesn’t have much of a democratic tradition. Liberalism and democracy are foreign imports. Korea’s own traditional politics are a weak monarchy complimented by a super-literate but fairly reactionary Confucian literati. To be fair, these guys actually governed Korea pretty well. Until NK totalitarianism (which is a Soviet import anyway), Koreans had no real experience with extremist government. Koreans didn’t fight too many wars before the West showed up in Asia in 1839; there was almost no religious persecution here; Korea never kicked up a megalomaniac like Napoleon or Qianlong. So give the Choseon Dynasty its due – compared to the violent, expansionist, hysteria-prone states of Europe last millenium, Koreans were quite gentle. I admire that. But the old ways were definitely hierarchical, feudal, and personalist, and you still see that here. I hear all time from expat businessmen that they must take care of legal or regulatory issues in Korea through personal contacts in the relevant bureaucracy rather than formal submissions. The impersonal rule of law of egalitarian democracy is a work in progress, and Korean politics remains a very closed, technocratic elite game, in which democratic voting doesn’t actually change much. This is why Koreans street-protest so much: the normal channels of democratic voice and participation (voting, parties, etc) are shallow. So you can see the hangover of the old Confucian elite ways as Korea struggles to build a more participative democracy.

3. Korea, a very traditional place, is modernizing very fast. Koreans are very proud that their history stretches back about two millennia. Korea’s borders (Yalu and Tumen rivers) have basically been settled for a millennium. So they have a pretty definite notion of identity, and it is a distinctly pre-modern agrarian, feudal, and conservative image. Korean TV and film are filled with stories about this or that king fighting to protect the nation, and all the characters are wearing highly stylized traditional clothing – the flowing robes characteristic of premodern Asia, called the hanbok  in Korea (and yes, men wear them too). Yet Koreans are also plowing headlong into the future of gizmos and technology and modernism generally. Current architecture is relentlessly modernist; Koreans love high, super modern skyscrapers. The fashion industry is huge and very hip.  They love gadgets. I see people watching TV on cellphones in underground subways for example. Just about everybody has lightning fast internet in their house. Online gaming is wildly popular. When I lived in Europe, I had lots of those tiresomely lofty, bloviating ‘Heidiggerian’ conversations about how technology is stripping away the human persona all that. Koreans are exactly the opposite. If the ‘Matrix’ were real, some of them would sign up, and if robots take over the world, I am sure they will have been made here. In short, you have almost reactionary sense of national cultural identity colliding with a youth-driven, super-modernism for technology.

4. Korea is pluralizing. Also colliding with this stable, somewhat backward looking sense of national identity is the rapid pluralization of both religion and ethnicity in the last century. While I do think the discourse of Korean multiculturalism is overhyped, there is no doubt that Korean’s demographics have changed more in the last 100 years than the last 1000, and more in the last 10 than in the last 100. Christianity has spread very rapidly, and Korean religious life is more diverse than any other OECD state I can think of. And in the last 15 years or so, Korea’s foreign population has jumped from basically zero (but for US soldiers) to over 2%. For Americans accustomed to immigrants, this is no big deal, but for a population raised on the idea of an integrated ethno-cultural identity (the minjeok), this is a huge and rapid shift that creates a fair amount of tension(which, to be fair, I think they manage pretty well).

2 thoughts on “Korean Nat’l Identity (2): 4 Simultaneous Sociological Transformations

  1. 1. The Cold War mentality goes a little further than a politico-military level. There’s also the view, implicit in the FTA-making agenda, that trade liberalization with the U.S. just comes with the alliance. South Koreans do conveniently fail to recall, that the Clinton administration hiked the dollar to give South Korean exporters a way out of the ’97 currency crisis, and highlight the IMF’s botched reforms campaign. But then, South Koreans take for granted the connection between development and trade.

    2. What I find more surprising is, that meritocratic attitudes and respect for the individual have not made any headway in Korea. I still encounter the attitude, for instance, that a person’s given names are entirely forgettable, but the family/clan name is of paramount pride, especially among women. Whatever sort of development has come to Korea, it is not liberal.

    3. I came to Korea thinking like a Heideggerian and looking for a non-European answer to ‘Being’. I found so many different perspectives in every province and among all the religious traditions. The junkbin of Korean history offered scores of defeated solutions and assassinated leaders that never really got a good hearing. Democratizing in Korea seems rather narrow-tracked without all these streams. I also had this vague Rousseauian notion, that Korea was a state where exotic local influences trumped modernizing trends. I repeat the story over and over, but I think my SouthKorean-born and naturalized American drill sergeant was right: the South Koreans have lost the old ways, and the North Koreans should just drive them into the ocean.

    4. I wouldn’t call offer Christianity’s influence as an indication of pluralization, but of regulatory capture.

  2. Pingback: Korean National Identity (1): Comparisons to Israel, France, and the US « Asian Security Blog

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