Monday, August 02, 2010

Are Koreans Prone to Conspiracy Theories?

Dear Korean,

Why are Koreans so prone to believing conspiracy theories? I have spent a lot of time in developing countries, and while all have different cultures, one thing they had in common was their propensity to believe bizarre conspiracy theories. While Korea is a wealthy country, it still seems their thinking has not caught up with their wallets. Their propensity toward conspiracy theories is very much a developing world way of thinking. Sure, you find conspiracy theories in the West, but mostly from college freshmen and pot heads.


Dear Asianequation,

It is true that conspiracy theories are rife in Korea, and they play a major role in Korean public life. One needs to look no farther than the Mad Cow scare that gripped the country two years ago. While there were legitimate kernels of truth about America's lax regulation against Mad Cow Disease (for example, not accounting for cross-infection until April of 2009,) those kernels were popcorned into utterly crazy ideas that the U.S. is out to kill Koreans with infected meat in the name of profit. More recently, certain South Korean political groups claimed that the South Korean government was falsely accusing North Korea for the attack by manufacturing the critical piece of evidence (which is Korean lettering discovered on a piece of the exploded torpedo shell) in order to gain advantage in the upcoming regional elections. In fact, the political groups that made those wild charges ended up gaining in the regional elections.

Why is this happening? First, try answering the following question:

Q. Which one of the below events did not happen in Korea in the last 50 years?

a. President ordered a prominent opposing politician to be kidnapped while the politician was traveling in Japan, to be dropped into the sea between Korea and Japan from a boat with a dead weight tied to his ankles. The politician barely survives because the Japanese coast guard gave the boat a chase.
b. The United States CIA bugged and eavesdropped on Blue House, the presidential residence of Korea.
c. Paratroopers attacked peacefully marching citizens of a certain city, eventually killing more than 600 people in the process. No one outside of the city heard of the massacre for days, because the dictatorship cut off the phone lines of the city and embargoed every television, radio and newspaper in Korea.
d. A prominent politician who fought against dictatorship all his life agrees to merge his party with two other parties that were heirs to the dictatorship, with a secret written promise to amend the constitution so that would change Korea's political system into English-style proportionally representative parliament.

The answer is: e. All of the above happened in Korea in the last 50 years. And these are just four examples of all the incredible things that happened in Korean politics.

 Prominent opposition politician Kim Dae-Jung gives press conference
after surviving from being kidnapped. Notice his busted lips.

In fact, Asianequation hit the nail on the head -- that the people of developing countries are prone to believing conspiracy theories. This is not because the people in developing countries are stupid; it is because insane stuff like the examples above tends to happen in developing countries. If one crazy thing can happen, why not another crazy thing? The fact that governments have little transparency only makes this worse.

And again, the key thing to remember about Korea is that it escaped being a developing country in no less than 20 years, possibly less. Heck, the Korean is only 29, but he remembers when Korea was a developing country. It is Korean people's towering achievement that Korea moved from a war-torn hellhole into a gleaming postmodern country in just 60 years or so. But it is too much to expect that Korea shed every aspect of a developing country in that process. This is particularly true in politics, where the lowest common elements of the society often reveal themselves.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. > The politician barely survives because the Japanese coast guard gave the boat a chase.

    Way I heard it, the US applied diplomatic pressure and traded a White House visit for Kim's life:

  2. Italy and Turkey are two other countries whose people accept "conspiracy analysis) (as Gore Vidal called it) more readily that do Anglo-Saxons.

    Koreans, Italians and other Latins, Turks, and Arabs belong to societies in which trust is placed in families and clans, rather than in civil society as a hole, as it is in English-speaking and other Northern European countries, and to a certain extent Japan. Thus, real conspiracies abound in these countries; pulling strings for members of the same family or faction, etc.

    Of course, the same things happen in the Nordic countries as well, people are just less likely to admit it. We Americans dismiss conspiracy theories too readily, in my opinion.

  3. In the above, "hole" should "whole," a Freudian slip perhaps.

  4. Yes, it's all true about developing countries' people. And I'm agree, this is partly because of the absence of transparency. My opinion is, maybe it has something to do with school carreer also, because if people learn more and more, they are differentiate things more and more, and finally they don't mix up unfitting elements so easily. But in developing countries members of the older generation not always had the chance to get proper education, so they are don't pay much attention to otherwise important details.

  5. Maybe people here have grown up believing what superiors / seniors have told them for so long that their critical thinking skills are rusty? You're not taught to think for yourself - you're taught the correct answer. That's the only one that helps you pass the 수능. That's the only one that helps you survive your military training (if you're male). Knowing how to respect seniors / superiors and how to follow orders becomes far more important than critical / creative thinking.

  6. Ps. I don't meant to be disdainful here, I had a current Hungarian political trend in my mind all along I wrote this, and tried to explain to myself. And it's serious.

  7. @Chris

    conspiracy theories can be pretty creative though...

  8. It is the lack of trust which causes belief in such conspiracies. And tbh quite a few of them turn out to be true!

    The Iraq war for instance was a REAL conspiracy so was Afghanistan.

    Smaller ones recently have been the UK government playing astroturf. For instance the UK government before May 2010 really wanted ID cards. So they got 8 of their own employees to pretend to love ID cards. The same has happened from many things.

    I believe Korea and even CHina now have moved out of the anything is possible stage.

    Back in the 1960s 70s and 80s anything was possible. Childrens books I remember from school told us we'd be able to travel in giant underground tubes to get to Japan or New York in less than 20 minutes.

    None of this happened, politicians failed us, life turned out to be indenture.

    Therefore politicians moved to a fear stage. YOu see it in American Election adverts all the time, I remember the wolves John Kerry Advert.

    I.e. vote for us and we will protect you, much of this subsequently turns to absolute bullshit. This erodes trust in government and people therefore people look for cracks.

    Sometimes they are proven true like when London had martial law declared and battle tanks parked in the streets. This was used to scare people into supporting the Iraq war, no retraction of the 'threat' was ever made.

    The word conspiracy theory is a nasty slur however, it is like calling somebody a gook or something.

    It is a label in which to group and categorise people and attempt to undermine their arguement without actually arguing. It has happened many times before, communists were called Pinkos, The NVA were called gooks. Koreans today in China are called Banzi (I don't know what this means).

    People who do not believe in various frauds in Global warming (which is now called man made climate change so they can claim both warming and cooling) are called deniers.

    Therefore I reckon quite a few people take offence to being labelled a conspiracy theorist. As said many have been proven true.

    I mean seriously do you believe everything the government tells you? I don't and NOT believing everything is supposed to be a good foundation for a healthy people fearing government. I forget who said it Jefferson maybe.

  9. I don't call this examples The Korean offers "conspiracy theories". Grays, ghost ships, chubracabra, 2012, the Battle of LA - these are conspiracy theories. And, my South Korean students have mercifully ridiculed these hoaxes so thoroughly, I didn't have to continue. I've found students had a sound scientific education and common sense. I also think most people are apathetic, not deniers, about political issues, because they don't see any benefit.

  10. Chris,

    Maybe people here have grown up believing what superiors / seniors have told them for so long that their critical thinking skills are rusty?

    That is an oft-repeated argument, but the Korean thinks it is baseless. How would you then explain that instead of mindlessly following what the government tells them, a large segment of Korean people disagree vigorously and apply all the critical thinking skills to debunk the government's theory?

  11. gwern, you are correct also. Kim was set to be dropped in the sea, but that plan was aborted when the Japanese coast guard chased the boat. He was still imprisoned, however, and that's when American diplomatic effort kicked into save Kim's life.

  12. When the Russian government's own investigation into the sinking declares "it wasn't a torpedo" I think we can safely move the Cheonan-wasn't-attacked-by-NK out of the conspiracy theory column and into something a little more credible, perhaps.

  13. Its also due to the long history of Korea and the East. They are full of folk lores and half baked truths that have been passed down from one generation to another...So it is definitely the herd mindset.

  14. 傻氣的人喜歡給心 雖然每次都被笑了卻得到了別人的心..................................................................

  15. Not to mention stem cell research fraud, North-South Summit bribery and so many more. What's worse is that some of these conspiracy theories one would initally dismiss as far-fetched actually turns out to be true from time to time. The high broadband penetration and a very active internet community only adds fuel to the fire.

  16. Show me a country that doesn't have a large amount of people believing conspiracy theories and other crazy things and James Randi will give you a million dollars.

    My point? Original question has a false premise, that Korea is special in a way for having these kind of things.


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