Friday, May 31, 2013

Korean Homework: Part Two

My first observation about "The Koreans" is that it was published in 1998.  Additionally, the author is British rather than Korean.  While an outside perspective can be a good way to explore a country's history and culture, the is the strong chance that such analysis will be clouded in bias regardless of the author's intent.  Thus, I am approaching the text with an understanding that the bias of time and of culture may obscure a full understanding of the Korean people as relayed by this work.  I'm sure a similar caveat is appropriate for my travel guide book as well as current events articles I may be reading.

"The Three Miracles"
➡Contradiction is a term which can help describe Koreans.  They are both forthright and obscure at the same time.  It can be difficult to truly know if they are 1) telling you what they think or 2) telling you what they think you want to hear.  Great flaming emotion is combined with an extreme sense of etiquette.  They ascribe to collectivist ideas but are, perhaps, the most individualistic of the East Asians.  They pursue status and titles but these are more of a guide to behavior and not a source of ultimate worth.
➡While Korea may be hard to read on a "day-to-day" basis, when viewed over the long-haul its issues are both simple and definable.
➡Much of the Korean story is one of trying to recover a lost national identity.  Following WWII and half a century of Japanes domination, there existed a sense of worthlessness.  Additionally, being a "divided" people (North & South) there have emerged two primary alternate paths to help define what it means to be "Korean".
➡At least for the South, "democracy" has become a key ingredient to national identity.  Former President Kim Dae-Jung articulated: "Culture is not necessarily our destiny, democracy is."
➡The growth which occurred in the South following the 1950s war was led by small groups of elites in politics, business, and the military.  A byproduct of elite control has been the stifling of creativity within society.  Changes are coming (many since publication of this book) which are expanding the role of the individual within society.
➡A comparison is made between the Koreans and Irish: a divided people often noted by hatred/violence with other side, lyrical people inclined to the spiritual which belies violent image, can be unrestrained in passions and be quick to both laugh and cry.
➡Law is not as important in constraining behavior as is the need to be accepted by peers--this is crucial for survival.
➡Korean growth is a manifestation of a determination not to remain in the grip of self-doubt and poverty.
➡Author's defined "three miracles": 1) 1960's military revolution gave spirit of hard work and collective purpose, 2) 1980's expansion of democratic ideals whic accompanied the economic growth, and 3) the "eventual" reunification of North and South.

"Image and Identity"
➡Common first responces when westerners were asked their thoughts about "Korea":
▶From those who read traditional newspapers: divided, violent, military, grim, war, corrupts, Olympics, World Cup, MASH, cars
▶From those who read tabloids: communist, starving, dog-eating, soccer, cars, sex industry, Mao Tse-ting, tropical, grass skirts
▶Obviously not much is known, and what is known is either simplistic and/or overwhelmingly negative.
➡Biggest obstacle to understanding Koreans is their nationalism. They uses image of a frog in a well to explain their parochialism: all the frog knows of the outside world is the distant patch of sky at the top of the well; its reality is what happens inside the well where he lives.  North Koreans often believe that Kim Il-sung is the most famous leader in the history of the world; South Korean intellectuals theorize that the history of the 20th century is a deliberate plot against Korea.

"Korean Heart"
➡Korea, like Scotland, is three-parts coastline and has a lot of dramatic mountains squeezed up from its shores.  This beauty, however, is made less accessible by the local ideas of tourism.
➡South Korea is the 5th most densely populated country; 70% of its land is uninhabitable mountain, thus a tendency to crowd into cities.
➡Koreans live in the "here and now" and take little genuine pride in their long and remarkably well documented history; they would prefer to take you to a Samsung Electronic plant than an ancient Budhist temple.  Author gives example of western tourism reporter who noted that Doksu Palace on Seoul is pitch black at night, not flood lights to highlight it, "Can you imagine any other major capital city in the world which hides its most historic sites like this?"
➡Korean education system is not based on analytic/empirical approach (build theory, research, modify theory, adjust significance of information) of the West.  Koreans are just taught facts; questioning and analyzing of such is considered an insult to the teacher.  It is not necessarily true that Koreans DELIBERATELY conceal information; the systems, thought process, and felt need may not exist to analyze/store information in the the way the West accepts it.  Korea's history is full of drama, but a tourist is more likely to leave a palace knowing how many tiles are in the roof than hearing the details of the past.
▶My aside: unfortunately much of this "just the facts" mentality has snuck into American educational systems.  Reform movements often blame the "testing" phenomenon for this.  Many are working hard to insure that students aren't simply learning facts but also learning how to make meaning of those facts.
➡The way a people think obviously affects everything.  The fact that Korea's current education system fails to meet Korea's modern needs is because it doesn't train people to think in a sufficiently rational and legalistic way.  I.E. the disputes over the Lioncourt Rocks (aka Dok-do to Koreans and Takeshima by Japanese), arguments grounded in history are not used by Koreans rather they use emotional nationalism-based pleas.
➡Individually, Koreans are sweet and decent.  It is when referring to the collective when analysts reach for the negatives.
➡Ceremony is highly important aspect of Korean culture and helps to serve as a process of relabeling or rebranding your identity.  Ceremonies help to make closures on the past, reinvent themselves, and move forward.  In their hierarchical society based on relationships, one's rank or label is vital.  The name card is more important than what you actually do.
▶My aside: perhaps this is part of why there is such a strong emphasis on business cards distributed amongst professional relationships.
➡Koreans are so focused on building relationships that they will rarely pursue activities which are accomplished solo (i.e. reading) and will alter plans at a moments notice so as to nurture a friendship.
➡Although Westerners consider East Asians more conservative and Westerners more liberal, many Koreans are much more accepting and embracing of differences.  The author suggests this is due to their Confusion influence that they seek harmonious relationships, whereas the Christian and law-based Western culture is more concerned with issues of right and wrong or good and evil.
➡Koreans are only beginning to develop the democratic attitudes and institutions to resolve conflict (remember this was published in 1998) whereas power and being louder was sound negotiating strategy.
➡Koreans can be remarkable rational and calculating on issues which Westerners tend to consider emotion, like selection of marriage partners.  Matchmakers are still widely used.

"Shaman Under the Skin"
➡Between 1/4 to 1/3 are Buddhists, 1/4 are Christian, several thousand Muslims, and the rest are connected to Shamanism or Confucianism (hard to quantify the last two due to lack of exclusive worship practice for identification purposes)
➡Koreans are Korean first. They take the system of a religion and make it their own.  When examining this "Korean-ness" you find that the values of all the religions which have influenced Korea exist within the Korean mind.  Each has deposited its sediment.
▶The Zen Buddhist concept of no past and no future, just a constantly flowing present can be seen within the immediacy and impatience of Koreans of all faiths.
▶Yoido Full Gospel Curch (Christian) has a simple appeal: accept Jesus and guarantee your health and wealth.  Both top public opinion polls on what Koreans most worry about.
▶Taoist ethos of "the way that can be discussed is not the way" figures in Korean attitudes.
▶Confucian precepts which emphasize vertically ordered human relationships have shaped Korean thinking and organization for centuries; much stronger so than in either China or Japan.
▶Shamanism held that humans existed as notes in nature's rhythmic tune; we are here before we are born and will be here after we die.
➡Intense messianism has created multiple fringe religious.  The most internationally known is the Unification Church of Rev. Moon Sun-myung.  Moon's view of God is quintessentially Korean in that he combined shamanist passions and Confuscian family pattern in a Christian form.
➡Shamanism is still widely practiced with modern shamans performing rituals of chant and dance to invoke various gods to exorcise evil spirits.
➡There are thousands of fortune tellers of various faiths or mixtures of faith.  This can be big business, especially for those tellers who get some of their predictions right.


  1. Hi David.
    Can I comment? I love your writing - very insightful. I just had a few comments on some of what you read:

    3 miracles: #3 there is a great divide on this issue – older Koreans want it, younger don’t care. The younger generation has no memory of the unified country, and the idea of trying to bring the North into the 21st century doesn’t hold much appeal for them.
    Population density – all Texans squeezed into 1/3 of the Austin metro area = pop density of Seoul Metro area
    Dokdo – I have to take issue with this. Although there are certainly emotional issues surrounding the dispute on both sides, the Koreans have documented their long time claims to the islands.
    There is certainly much ceremony associated with the business cards- my new ones are packed and ready to go!
    Relationships – I am not sure this can be read in the regular American way, as a friendship. I have the impression that it is more focused on getting ahead in the business world. Kind of akin to our networking.
    Conflict – this was SO true in China – our minders had absolutely no idea of how to negotiate. They always had to ask the higher-ups for permission when we wanted to deviate from the schedule. I can see how any people new to democracy and Western ideas, especially with a Confucian background, would have a hard time with this.
    Good take on the religions. All such a mix, its hard to separate into different parts.

    1. Oh Robin, you may absolutely comment!

      I agree that #3 is losing it's allure, especially among a younger population. I've read another article recently that poses the very same perspective you've made.

      When I first saw this author's presentation on the Lioncourt Rocks I was a bit startled myself. The teachers and other history/geography professions that you and I encountered in Seoul in Nov. 2009 certainly included historic based arguments in their presentations. As the same time, I do remember one teacher showing pictures of drawings her younger students had made of "Korea" and she mentioned how important that Dokdo was to their "national identity"; she was taking more of the nationalism argument for a part of her presentation...but I think she's the same one who then presented much on the history as well. I wonder how much has changed in between the publication of this author's book in 1998 and our trip in 2009?

      As I continue reading his work, it seems as if the relationship issue, while heavily focused on business relationships, does incorporate all kinds of relationships as well.