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[Park Sang-seek] Why is Korea accident-prone?

The Sewol ferry disaster has brought the whole country into a pandemonium as well as a grand debate on the causes and remedies of manmade disasters. The insatiable materialistic drive of the business world, the highly incompetent and irresponsible government agencies, the immoral and illegal behavior of the crew, and the irrational and immoral behavior and rumor-mongering of some people have been most frequently mentioned as the major causes of the incident. For disaster prevention, on the other hand, the reorganization of the government agencies in charge of disaster control, the eradication of mammonist culture prevalent in society, and strengthening of the laws punishing those responsible for disasters and rumor-mongering have been suggested as measures for remedy.

Now is the time to reopen a national debate on the fundamental causes of manmade disasters in Korea. Through my articles in The Korea Herald, I have already explored this question. The culture that Korean people themselves have created since independence is basically responsible for inconceivable big accidents.

South Korea after independence from Japanese colonial rule adopted the Western democratic-capitalist system, which is the product of Western civilization, and has pursued modernization vigorously. The Korean people were too preoccupied with rapid modernization to reflect upon the impact of modernization and Western civilization on traditional Korean culture.

In concrete terms, they did not discuss seriously the relationship between modernization and Western civilization on the one hand and that between Korean culture and modernization and Western civilization on the other. The West was able to achieve modernization earlier than the non-West mainly because its civilization provided the driving force of modernization. The values, norms and behavioral patterns of the West including individualism (individual rights and property), work ethic, the rule of law, rationalism, challenge to nature, and separation of spiritual and temporal authority are all favorable to rapid industrialization and commercialization. In contrast, those of Korean culture such as authoritarianism (or collectivism), irrationalism (or emotionalism), fatalism, lack of work ethic, and favoritism are detrimental to modernization.

The successive Korean governments have made strenuous efforts to eradicate those traditional cultural elements that are detrimental to modernization and to promote those Western values, norms and behavioral patterns that are favorable to modernization. But they have not been so successful.

First, culture is formed over several centuries. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to transform traditional culture into modern culture in a short period. Second, the main benefit of modernization is material wealth, which entails conspicuous consumption and lust for wealth. The governments have mainly focused on the Western values and behavioral norms that are likely to promote modernization, mainly rapid economic development, rather than Western moral standards. Moreover, common people have been seduced almost instantly into materialistic lust and have become egoistic and self-indulgent, misinterpreting or misusing individualism as unlimited freedom or egoism while ignoring Western moral values and beliefs such as work ethic and the rule of law. Because of this trend, as modernization has proceeded rapidly, the materialistic aspect of Western civilization has strengthened and undermined traditional Korean culture, particularly the Confucian moral codes.

In concrete terms, the Korean people reject authoritarianism but in reality their behavioral pattern remains authoritarian. They uphold the rule of law and work ethic, but do not live according to these Western values. As a result, the whole Korean society suffers from anomie and confusion.

Korea is faced with a dilemma: Traditional Korean culture is one of the important elements of Korea’s national identity as a nation-state and therefore it cannot be completely replaced by Western civilization. The desirable and practical solution is to harmonize Western and Korean cultures. In order to become a modernized and rich nation-state, Korea should discard some elements of Korean culture such as authoritarianism (hierarchical social order, paternalism, status-orientation and male chauvinism), empty moral codes, non-scientific ways of thinking and fatalism, while solidly integrating Western values and beliefs that can contribute to modernization (e.g. Western work ethic) into Korean culture and strengthening some traditional Korean values and beliefs (e.g. Confucian moral codes).

It is unfortunate that the Korean national identity has not clearly been defined and understood by the people. The Korean constitution enunciates the free democratic political order guaranteeing security, freedom and happiness, and promoting justice, humanitarianism and brotherly love. This is the goal to create the Korean national identity, not the confirmation of it. The key question is how to establish the national identity and create a new Korean culture. The government, civil society organizations, and educational and religious institutions should form a triple coalition to create a new Korean culture. Korean culture is going through a critical period of great transformation.

By Park Sang-seek

Park Sang-seek is a former rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe.” ― Ed.