The main pillar of traditional Korean culture was collectivism. Collectivism in the Korean context can be defined as a culture based on the hierarchical social structure which subjugates the individual rights to the collective goods of society. This cultural structure is diametrically opposite to the Western cultural structure based on the egalitarian social structure which emphasizes that the collective goods are to serve the individual’s rights, not vice versa.
After Korea regained independence after WWII, South Korea has been making efforts to integrate Western civilization into Korean traditional culture, but the result is opposite. The latter has been being accommodated into the former, mainly for rapid industrialization and modernization because Western civilization is the very engine for both purposes. In the process of integration of Western civilization into Korean culture, the exactly opposite has taken place: Korean culture has been absorbed into Western culture. Koreans have become confused and have been wavering between the two cultures.
The most important task for all Koreans is how to homogenize the two opposed cultures. But the task is almost impossible to succeed. The two value systems are not only the backbones of both cultures but diametrically opposed to each other. Another problem Koreans are faced with is that they do not realize collectivism is the opposite idea to individualism and often identify it with egotism or egoism. As a result, they have become egotistic rather than individualistic. The egotistic people do not respect other people’s equal rights and pursue their own personal or group interests, while individualists know that each person should respect the other’s rights.
Because of this anomaly, Korean society is going through a very uncertain and insecure transitional period. Often we witness a serious confrontation between collectivist and egotistic views. For example, when the government tries to expand the green zones, residents living in the zones may strongly oppose the policy, disregarding what kind of benefits the plan will bring to the nation. If the general public becomes less egoistic or egotistic, the entire nation can benefit from the policy.
More serious is the impact of egotism on the government’s security and military polices. For example, when the government plans to build a military base in a certain area, the residents may violently oppose it. If the residents become too egoistic or egotistic, a national security policy can be undermined.
Koreans have come out of collectivism too fast and have pursued egoistic or egotistic goals too much. Individualism is one of the two principal principles of Western civilization, with the other being human rights. Scholars agree that without these two ideologies no democracy is possible. South Korea is officially called the Daehan Minjugonghwaguk which means in English the Daehan Democratic Republic. There would be neither a democracy nor a republic without the guarantee of individualism and human rights. If people cannot distinguish between individualism and egoism, how can they have democracy?
Individualism consists of rights and duties. People are required to exercise these rights and duties according to the laws. Otherwise, they are no longer individualistic citizens but egoistic or egotistic citizens. Under the traditional collectivist culture individuals could not enjoy individual rights but under a modern individualistic culture everyone enjoys them. Hence, egoists will be condemned or punished, while individualists will not.
What is the reason why does egoistic culture rather than civic culture prevail in Korean society? The main cause is lack of civility or civilization. One of the dictionary definitions of civilization is “an ideal state of human society characterized by a complete absence of barbarism.”
The most urgent task of the Korean people at present is to build a true individualistic, not egotistic, culture as soon as possible. I am deeply saddened and disappointed by the present cultural environment of Korea. In my eyes, most Koreans are so selfish and worship mammon. So many great religious leaders and moralists and scholars preach the revitalization of moral behavior but people turn a deaf ear to them.
What are the causes of this culture of mammon? One source is the rapid rise of capitalism. Capitalist culture actually advocates the worship of mammon. “Money talks” is a typical slogan of vulgar capitalists. This is mostly true. You can buy jobs, positions, honors, titles, etc. All kinds of propaganda agitated by some political groups, North Korean agents or sympathizers, radical NGOs, etc. are other sources. If the culture of mammon continues to prevail, the entire country will suffer from it. This culture will disintegrate Korean society as whole, provide a fertile ground for communists and other radical groups for political agitation, and eventually undermine the very foundation of national security.
The best and most practical solution to the worship of mammon is to replace egotism with individualism. Individualism is the very foundation of liberalism, which is in turn the very foundation of democracy. Liberalism demands that every person has the equal right to make money through free and fair competition. As a result, an unequal distribution of wealth is inevitable. But economic inequality is most likely to ferment social instability, no matter whether a person has accumulated his wealth legally or not.
The only practical solution in a capitalist system is that the government reduces inequality in the distribution of wealth. In the contemporary era, non-communist countries try to reduce steep economic inequality by a graded tax system, social security, etc. Still unequal distribution is one of the main sources of political conflicts and instability in underdeveloped countries.
South Korea is no longer an underdeveloped country and tries to cope with this problem of the unequal distribution of wealth. Unfortunately, however, the entire people have become more egotistic than ever before. As a result, the rich and poor have become more hostile to each other, because both have become more mammon worshipers, while all people have become more egotistic, distrust each other, and even hate each other.
How to deal with this problem has become one of the two most important and urgent tasks of the Korean people. The other one is the denuclearization of North Korea
A former chancellor of the Diplomatic Academy( formerly the IFANS) at the Foreign Ministry, Park Sang-seek is the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe” and “Land of Tears,” an English novel. -- Ed.