In Korean society, it is extremely difficult not to belong to any group and to be considered a nonconformist. The average Korean actively participates in six to eight groups, in which members regularly meet and socialize. These groups include school alumni associations, hometown leagues, hiking or jogging clubs, academic societies and political factions, to name but a few.
Scholars have attempted to comprehend why Koreans yearn for and have a strong inclination to join associations. Professor Lee Won-bok, for example, argues in his bestselling comic book, “Korea Unmasked,” that since Korea is a hierarchal society, people try to belong to as many parallel associations as possible to protect themselves from their oppressive superiors. Intriguing as it is, Professor Lee’s theory can be extended to explain why Koreans tend to make either/or value judgments: left or right, privileged or underprivileged, poor or rich, etc. In Korea, you always need to belong to a group which protects you from other groups.
When I returned from the United States and landed at Seoul National University in the early 1980s, Korean academia was split between “unadulterated” Marxists and “corrupt” capitalists, or “conscientious” realists and “decadent” modernists. Soon I, too, was caught in the crossfire between the two factions. I proposed a third possibility called postmodern perspectives that could embrace and criticize both Marxism and capitalism, or realism and modernism. But few Koreans knew of postmodernism in the 1980s.
It was during the Chun Doo-hwan era when Marxism, as a counter-ideology to the right-wing military dictatorship, was fashionable and ubiquitous on college campuses. Quite a few professors preached age-old Marxism as if it was the one and only brand-new gospel to save South Korea from dictatorship. Students were enchanted by this seemingly attractive political ideology, which in fact had caused the misery and massacre of so many people in human history. Senior students, saturated with Marxism, actively brainwashed incoming freshmen “to alter their consciousnesses.” Senior left-wing professors, too, tried to recruit young faculty members into their Marxist factions.
One day, I was approached by an eminent Marxist professor who invited me to lunch. After closely examining my political leanings over our meal, he seemed a bit disappointed. But he carefully asked me to join the Marxist camp, nonetheless. As a born rogue who did not want to belong to any faction, I naturally declined his offer.
“They say that when young, it is only natural you become a Marxist,” I told him, perhaps impudently, “but when old, it is natural you become a conservative.”
Then I added, “I am neither young nor old, so I would like to stay in the middle for a while.”
Disappointed in me, the Marxist scholar left me and has never approached me ever since. Although I detested the Chun Doo-hwan administration, I did not want to confine myself to a political dogma no matter what.
At that time, students frequently asked me in class, “Are you a realist or a modernist?” which also meant, “Are you a Marxist or a capitalist?” I tried to teach them that they should learn to accept the both/and construction, transcending the boundaries of nutshell political dogmas, but that was not an easy task. University campuses were split between militant, self-righteous leftist professors who were defiantly anti-government, and meek, silent professors who were often collaborating with the dictatorial government.
Three decades have passed since this era and many things have changed in the meantime. Nevertheless, Korean society still remains divided into two antagonistic ideological factions. Today, old-fashioned leftist scholars who disguise themselves as liberals and progressives still enjoy fame and economic prosperity in Korean society, ironically taking advantage of the capitalism they ruthlessly condemn. People used to call such bourgeois Marxists, “gangdan joapa (classroom leftists),” that is, those who preach Marxism in theory while living as a typical bourgeoisie. These days, people call them, “gangnam joapa (rich Marxists, or literally, leftists who live in rich town).”
One puzzling thing is that our leftist celebrities are curiously silent on the three-generation dictatorship of the Kim dynasty. They do not open their ears to North Korean escapees who have managed to fled to the South either. Another perplexing thing is that these anti-American, pro-North Korean leftist scholars choose to spend their sabbaticals in the United States, not in North Korea, and even send their children to American universities.
Then I heard about the so-called “military provisions theory”: “When fighting, Communist troops impound provisions even from enemy villages. So they do not think they are betraying their beliefs when they take advantage of what America has to offer.” Now I understood: our leftists, who go or send their children to the United States, are simply “confiscating provisions from America” to fight against America! Mulling over the funny theory, I could not help but chuckle in amusement.
A great man will never confine himself to a faction. Koreans should learn to become more free-spirited when it comes to political ideologies. Only then will South Korea become a global leader and a good place to live.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.