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[Park Sang-seek] Why are Koreans so unhappy with their lot?

According to a survey conducted by Gallup Poll and Health Ways in 2013, South Korea ranked 80th among 135 states in terms of people’s feelings of their well-being. Well-being was measured through purpose of life, social relations, economic conditions, health and community security. South Korea’s GDP per capita ranked 32nd among 193 states in 2013.

Why then are Koreans so discontented? Commonsensical answers are numerous. To cite a few, Koreans rarely appreciate the benefits they receive from their government; they are so selfish and greedy that they always want to have more than others have; and they are appreciative of what they have but are very critical of corruption and injustices prevalent in the government and society.

But these answers call for a further question: Why do they have such perceptions and attitudes? We can find the answers in Korean culture. Contemporary Korean culture is a mixture of the traditional and the modern. Traditional Korean culture had remained intact from time immemorial until the end of the 18th century, when Western powers began to approach Korea. From the mid-19th century Korea was exposed to the power struggles among its neighboring big powers and Western powers, and Western civilization began to encroach upon traditional Korean culture, but the impact of Westernization was almost insignificant mainly because the Korean dynasty, whose state religion was Confucianism, stuck to complete isolationism. In these power struggles Japan emerged as the victor and colonized Korea. The Japanese colonial government introduced Westernization and modernization to Korea, but to a very limited extent.

After independence from Japan, the U.S. played the leading role in the Westernization and modernization of Korea until the end of the Korean War. Since then the Korean government has been making all-out efforts to achieve the modernization of Korea without knowing or ignoring the fact that modernization and Westernization are different but closely interrelated. But America has remained the main foreign contributor to Korea’s modernization and Westernization process.

The Korean government has placed priority on the values and norms of modernization over those of Western civilization. Western countries achieved modernization earlier than non-Western countries because Western civilization was more conducive to economic development than non-Western ones. Its characteristics are rationalism, individualism (individual rights and private property), secularism (separation of religious and secular authority), the rule of law and the prominence of social groups over primordial groups. In contrast, the predominant characteristics of traditional Korean culture are authoritarianism (hierarchical social order, status-orientation and patriarchy), irrationalism, collectivism and Confucian moral codes.

In the early period of modernization, the political and social leaders of China, Japan and Korea thought that they could achieve modernization without undermining their traditional cultures. But in actual reality, the dynamics of interactions between the forces of modernization and Westernization and their traditional cultures has made it impossible. What is more, Korea’s modernization process coincided with the globalization process because both began to accelerate in the early 1960s. Consequently, the Western way of life, particularly Western popular culture, has flowed into Korea and stimulated materialistic lust and conspicuous consumption more than ever. Despite the rapid process of modernization and globalization, some Korean traditional values and norms such as authoritarianism and irrationalism have survived and intermingled with Western and modern values while others, particularly Confucian moral codes, have been substantially weakened.

Europeans also had their own traditional cultures, similar to Asians’, but Western civilization began to form at the end of the eighth century, and the Enlightenment Movement, which took place between the mid-17th and late-18th centuries, almost destroyed their traditional cultures and consolidated Western civilization. On the other hand, European modernization began in the beginning of the 16th century and paved the way for the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. In contrast, modernization in Korea on a full scale began in the late 20th century. This means that the modernization of Korea started almost four and a half centuries later than European modernization.

The authoritarian behavioral pattern has weakened in personal relationships but remains intact in the public domain despite the fact that egalitarianism and liberalism are widely upheld by Koreans. The rational way of dealing with public and business affairs is not yet a common norm. On the other hand, the production and consumption of consumer goods has made Koreans more materialistic and greedy than ever before. However, materialism has strengthened the competitive spirit, which is the moving force of capitalism. The Koreans living under a capitalist economic system have become highly competitive and greedy among themselves and in relation to foreigners. Some Koreans who do not differentiate Westernization and modernization equate individualism with egoism and are less concerned about community interests. They do not realize that individualism in the Western sense is founded on enlightened self-interest.

In sum, the intermingling of traditional, modern and Western value systems makes Koreans behave incoherently. That is why Koreans are discontented with their society and their lives. I call this phenomenon “modernization and its discontents,” as Freud called the conflict between humans’ quest for instinctual desire and civilization’s demand for instinctual repression “Civilization and its Discontents.”

Korea needs to transform the incoherent coexistence of traditional, modern and Western values and norms into a coherent and homogeneous culture as fast as possible. At present Korean culture is like a salad bowl. It should be turned into a melting pot. The integrated culture will have the characteristics of individualism, egalitarianism, rationalism, communalism, the rule of law and Confucian moral codes. Until that time Korea will remain a modernizing but not-yet-modernized state. A modernized state is a civilized state. Under an integrated culture, the Korean people will become more contented because they will no longer have an authoritarian polity, man-made disasters and widespread corruption scandals. 

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.