One of the distinctive characteristics of Korean culture is “sinbaram.” In Korean, “sin” (pronounced “shin”) means God or spirits and “baram” means wind. When someone is excited, Koreans say, “sinbaram blows to him,” or “He is sinnada,” meaning “He is in high spirits” or “He is elated.” When sinbaram blows collectively, Koreans easily become ecstatic and accomplish astonishing things together.
The word sinbaram may have derived from Korean shamanism, the indigenous religion of Korea. When a shaman performs a ritual to drive away a bad spirit, a good spirit usually descends upon her, who then chants and dances in excitement. When the good spirit possesses the shaman, she becomes elated and can perform supernatural powers; she can even walk on a blade without a scratch on her feet.
Even ordinary Koreans can do amazing things when elated by sinbaram. For example, people agree that hinbaram has contributed to the economic success of Korea. Under sinbaram, Koreans have worked together cheerfully and diligently until their country has become an affluent nation with the 12th largest economy in the world. Indeed, sinbaram has always helped the Korean people overcome ordeals and hardships in its turbulent history and accomplish spectacular outcomes.
Unfortunately, sinbaram also has its downsides. In the whirlpool of sinbaram, for example, it is difficult to calm down and as a result, you can scarcely be rational or reasonable. Perhaps that is why Koreans easily get emotional or sentimental whenever there is an issue, whether domestic or foreign. The problem is that when you are too emotional, things can get messy.
Sinbaram can also cause you to be swept along in the crowd at the cost of your individuality. It is no wonder that in Korea a national campaign can easily turn into a national frenzy, as people are prone to be swept away in the waves. Combined with Korea’s unique community spirit and group-oriented mind, sinbaram means the Korean people enjoy large gatherings whenever there are occasions such as sports events, festivals or political protests. It is no wonder, therefore, that you can frequently see massive gatherings in Korean society.
In addition, sinbaram often brings on ultranationalism or distorted patriotism. During the 2002 World Cup soccer games held in Seoul, for example, the Korean people swept by sinbaram did not tolerate other teams beating the Korean team or anyone who supported any other team than Korea. If you did not support the Korean soccer team, you were a national traitor. Likewise if you cheered for other teams. Hostility toward foreign teams was rampant. I wrote a newspaper column on it, saying that since we were the host of the World Cup games, we should welcome foreign teams and cheer them, as well. Immediately, I received a threatening email saying, “Aren’t you a Korean?”
Another downside of sinbaram is that by using it, instigators or demagogues can control and manipulate us for political purposes. The problem is that we do not realize it, even though those people are intentionally using us. Take the 2002 World Cup cheering crowd for example once again. At the time, approximately 200,000 people gathered at Gwanghwamun Square to cheer on the Korean soccer team. People thought they voluntarily gathered at Gwanghwamun. In fact, however, many people received text messages urging them to come out to Gwanghwamun at that time. It was obvious that those who had sent the text messages manipulated the crowd politically by instigating ultranationalism.
The massive candlelight demonstrations in 2017, which eventually ousted President Park Geun-hye, may be another example. Numerous people joined the rallies voluntarily to protest the incredibly incompetent Park administration, while hoping for a new, corruption-free democratic government.
Despite this worthy intention, however, there was a suspicion that some invisible political groups deliberately organized and staged the demonstrations behind-the-scenes, using innocent people for political gain. At that time, people were elated under sinbaram and naively believed they could build a new world after the impeachment of President Park. Now they may belatedly realize they only helped equally problematic politicians take political power.
Today, sinbaram seems to have receded in Korean society and no one seems to be sinnada. Indeed, many Koreans are frustrated, dismayed and despairing these days due to the staggering economy and the government’s failed, amateurish real estate policies that have detonated unreasonably harsh tax bombs. Meanwhile, sophisticated people worry about the grim future of South Korea due to its deteriorating democracy and diplomatic crisis caused by the conflicts between China and the US, not to mention its damaged partnership with Japan.
Sinbaram can be both positive and negative, depending on the situation. It could be a catalyst for Korea’s remarkable accomplishments and yet it could unwittingly bring a disaster as well, if politically manipulated. We could only hope that sinbaram could be a powerful dynamo for a bright future for Korea.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.