Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Korea's Problem is Modernity

I recently finished reading Daniel Tudor's Korea: the Impossible Country. (My review of the book is available at Reading Korea.) My reaction was mostly positive:  it was an excellent overview of contemporary Korea, providing a clear-eyed look at achievements and flaws of today's Korean society. As I wrote in my review, the book is highly recommended.

This, however, does not mean that I agree with the book entirely. I felt that in his book, Tudor relied a bit too often on Confucianism as a crutch, to provide explanations about Korean society that are too just-so. Tudor correctly identifies the full slate of the issues that contemporary Korea has, including high suicide rate, low satisfaction with life, low birthrate, excessive emphasis on education, grueling jobs with very long hours, etc. Tudor also correctly identifies that ultimately, competition--which drove Korea achieving prosperity and freedom at a rate unprecedented in human history--is what causes these social ills in Korea. 

Gangnam is not just for Gangnam Style--it is also the Mecca of plastic surgery in Korea.
It is not a coincidence that glassy skyscrapers, symbols of Korea's prosperity,
house so many plastic surgery clinics.
(source)

Where Tudor and I part company is the reason for such competition. Often, Tudor points to Confucianism as the motivating factor for the excessive competition in today's Korean society. For example, Tudor begins the chapter about competition in Korea with following: "Because Confucianism places a special value on success through education and stable family, Koreans focus on the minimal standard of living at which they will be comparable to others."* Although Tudor then goes into the exposition of how Korea's desperate poverty shaped Korea's national culture (a point with which I am inclined to agree,) starting the chapter with a reference to Confucianism colors the subsequent discussion the chapter.

(*Because I am working off of a translated version of the book, this quote may not be exactly the same as Tudor wrote it. You can blame Mr. Tudor, who sent me a translated version rather than the English original.)

If Tudor's point is that Confucianism contributes to the problems that today's Korean society has, I wonder how Tudor may respond to the following historical tidbit. Pre-modern Korea--through Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties--enjoyed extremely long periods of peace and stability. For nearly a thousand years prior to early 20th century, Korea experienced only one major war that meaningfully threatened its survival. At all other times, Korea had a strong, unitary central government that was able to implement its vision for improving Korean society. Needless to say, such vision was informed by Confucianism.

And by Joseon Dynasty, such effort was wildly successful. One can argue that Korea has reached the pinnacle of an agricultural society by that point. Organized by village units with centuries of farming experience, Koreans have perfected the delicate balance of producing the most amount of harvest without overtaxing the soil. Koreans also diversified their crop, allowing the soil to heal and providing more variety to their table. (Recall that traditional Korean cuisine features more than 1,000 types of edible plants.) The village unit also made effective use of the labor, setting precise schedules of who works when, for what task.**

(**From 김건태, "19세기 집약적 농법의 확산과 작물의 다각화", 역사비평 2012년 겨울호 [Kim Geon-tae, Intensive Agronomy, Diversification of Crops in the 19th Century])

The result was a society that produced everything it needed without too much effort. Thanks to efficient farming, Koreans always had plenty to eat. Indeed, the amount of food that Koreans traditionally consumed nearly defies belief. A diary from the 17th century describes that Koreans ate 7 hob [홉] of rice per meal, or approximately 420 grams. This is around triple of the amount of rice Koreans eat per meal today. Yet Koreans never had to work very hard to eat. Studies show that Koreans did not work all that much except in periods such as planting and harvesting rice, because labor was distributed efficiently. Contrary to the stereotype of hard-working Asians, foreign travelers' account of Korea invariably describe Koreans as "lazy." In truth, Koreans were not lazy. They simply produced everything they needed without spending all that much time.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.





It is important not to idealize the past, as traditional Korea was hardly the perfect society. It was a monarchy with a class system. It was also a male-dominated society. Further, Korea did not always enjoy abundance of life's necessities--after all, Korea definitely experienced bad harvests and lean times during Joseon Dynasty's six-century-long history.

But it is hard to deny that traditional Korea has certain charms that modern Korea lacks. There was no constant competition or striving that stressed people out--simply people efficiently doing what they had to do to produce more than what they needed, and enjoying their lives in the free time. And these traditional Koreans kept much more closely to Confucianism than today's Koreans do. If Confucianism contributes to the excessive competition that today's Koreans experience, why didn't it cause Koreans of the Joseon Dynasty to compete more, work long hours, etc.? And if Confucianism did not cause that, what did?

Korea's problems do not arise Confucianism; they arise from modernity. Modernity--whose essential ingredients are industrialization and market economy--demands incessant competition. In the traditional economy, the one and only goal is sustenance. Traditional Koreans did not have large, interconnected markets to which they would sell any excess food, nor would there be anyone to buy such excess. Once they produced enough to eat, there is little incentive to produce any further.

A Korean table at a jumak [restaurant and pub], circa 1890.
Note the size of the bowls for rice and soup.
(source)

There is something very attractive about this model. After all, with all the technology we have, why do we work so much? By all indications, there is absolutely no reason for anyone in the advanced economy to work more than 15 hours a week to produce everything we need in life. The experience of traditional Korea shows that even a pre-industrial society can achieve this goal, as long as the society defines down the level of "need." So why do we bother with modernity's stress-inducing demands?

Korea's history provides the answer: if your country does not move toward modernity, modernity will come to your country in the most horrific form possible. To the people who reject modernity, modernity will be imposed. In the late 19th century, modernity first knocked Korea's doors in the form of French and American warships demanding Korea to open its ports. Modernity then busted down the doors with Imperial Japan, which soon enslaved the entire country in the following decades.

The essence of modernity is to turn humans into resources. Market economy and industrialization, operating together, dehumanize, commodify and objectify humans. And no one bears the brunt of such dehumanization quite like the conquered subjects of an empire, who are deemed less of a human in the eyes of the conqueror. Thus, Imperial Japan freely utilized Korea's "human resource"--hideous words, if you think about it--in the most inhumane manner. The empire conscripted millions of Koreans to die in forced labor, hundreds of thousands of Korean women (who were doubly commodified as conquered subjects and receptacles for men's sex) to serve as sex slaves to its soldiers, and thousands to serve as laboratory rats in live human experimentation.

This searing experience left Koreans with an unforgettable lesson: modernize, or literally, die. It is no surprise, therefore, that Koreans singularly focused on modernizing at quickly as possible. This focus was particularly evident in the personal philosophy of Park Chung-hee, under whose dictatorship Korea took the first steps toward joining the first world. (Indeed, "homeland's modernization" [조국의 근대화] is one of Park's favorite phrases in his numerous speeches.) But because Korea was so far behind in the race toward modernity, it was not enough for Korea to simply participate in the race. To catch the countries that were ahead in the race of modernity, Korea had to find a way to break the game.

(source)

In the bestseller Moneyball, Michael Lewis describes how Oakland A's, a team that is perennially strapped for cash and resources, manage to compete and beat the far-better-endowed teams by distilling the game of baseball into its very essence--that is, not getting your batters out. To that end, Oakland A's stripped its team of baseball's traditional and aesthetics preference, and focused only on not getting its batters out. Other  MLB teams would idolize the batters who were physical specimen capable of hitting the baseball. Oakland A's would focus on batters who may not look athletic and appear to be pedestrian in traditional metrics, but were capable of drawing walks--not as aesthetically pleasing as a base hit, but same result at the end.

One can argue that Korea also made up for its disadvantage by distilling modernity into its very essence: commodification. In its furious race toward modernity, Korea arguably managed to commodify its people better than any other country in the world. It helped that Koreans had already experienced modernity's terrible commodification at the hands of Imperial Japan, and were broken by Korean War into poverty and desperation. To be sure, Korea's commodification did not necessarily mean endless hours of sweatshop labor, although sweatshops were a crucial component in the early stages of Korea's economic development. Korea invested massively in public education and raised a huge corps of highly able people. Through the combination of nationalistic exhortation and authoritarian rule, Korea squeezed maximum amount of quality labor out of them. The result is as we see today: Korea at the forefront of modernity, the fastest country to have done so in human history.

But such ruthless commodification of humans left numerous scars in Korean society, because unlike that of baseball, the essence of modernity is toxic. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that every social problem in Korea is ultimately reducible to commodification. Korean people kill themselves at a record rate because, in a society that replaced the traditional family-based relationship with modern employer-employee relationship, the unemployable no longer has any further reason to exist. Koreans double down on education precisely to avoid this fate and make themselves employable. Korean women undergo plastic surgery at a record rate because they are commodified based on their looks in both the job market and the marriage market. Koreans are both too busy to invest in themselves, and too concerned that their children will have to run in the same, tiresome hamster wheel; so they forgo having children, or have no more than one. Above all, in this inhuman modern society, Koreans are stressed out and unhappy.

Focusing on the true cause of Korea's social ills illuminates the true lessons to be learned from Korea's experience. The first lesson is that focusing on Korea's unique history and cultural tradition does not help finding the solution for Korea's issues. If Korea's tradition is the cause for Korea's social ills, one would observe the same ills afflicting Korea throughout its history. This is simply not the case. In fact, much of Korea's tradition would counsel against the afflictions of modernity. Confucian education, for example, is about building a certain moral character, rather than learning specific skills to become an employable cog in the modern economy. The educational fervor in Korea has gone past the level of diligence, and is now in the territory of constant exhaustion. Having Korea's education focus again on character-building, rather than picking up an ever-increasing number of skills, would moderate this desperation that ruining Korea's children today.

The second lesson is the extension of the first. Korea's problem is not Korean culture; Korea's problem is modernity itself. Thus, Korea's problem is not limited to Korea, but is universal, and afflicts every contemporary industrialized, capitalistic society. Broad survey of modernized countries reveals that echoes of Korea's problems exist all over the world, albeit in different degrees. Korea is frequently cited for having high suicide rates, but sociological studies make it abundantly clear that every single industrialized country in the history of the world experienced a huge spike in suicide rate in the process of industrializing, and later the country industrialized, the higher the spike. Korea's high rate of plastic surgery receives international focus, but Brazil, another up-and-coming industrialized nation, is also making headlines for huge numbers of plastic surgery. Although Korea's fervor for education is often considered as excessive, in the United States, the doubling down on education set off a nuclear arms race of diploma inflation of the kind seen in Korea.

(Aside:  The trend of globalization, which is just another name for worldwide modernization, takes this worldwide commodification of humans to a new low. FoxConn laborers in China kill themselves in droves, while hundreds of workers in Pakistian die in a fire that supposedly passed the fire inspection, all in the process of manufacturing goods for wealthy, first world consumers. But even the first world consumers are no longer safe: as the international competition improves, the ruthless efficiency-seeking machine siphons the wealth that previously sustained the first world's middle class to the new capitalists of the rest of the world. In the modernized world, mediocrity has nowhere to hide.)

That Korea's problems are universal to modern nations leads to a disconcerting realization: solving these problems would require a complete redirection of human civilization from the path that it has taken for the last 250 years. It is not clear if this is even possible; it is equally unclear if this is desirable. For all of its problems, modernity also has enormous benefits in the form of unprecedented wealth (albeit distributed unevenly), advanced medical science and greater knowledge about the world around us. Even in the limited context of Korea, this inquiry retains the same character: for all of their complaints about today's Korea, would Koreans really want to go back to the way things were, three centuries ago? Are Korea's problems--stress, low birthrate, suicide--just something that Korea must learn to deal with, in exchange for the dividends of modernity? Can any one society refuse the tide of modernity today without getting swallowed up by other societies, which would continue to march toward superior economy and military?

These are important questions. They are also exceedingly difficult, and their scope is far greater than a single national culture or tradition. As such, in discussing Korea's problems, it is a mistake to focus solely on Korea's tradition or Korea's culture. Korea's problem is modernity, and Korea's problem is the world's problem. Fixing it requires not some tinkering of Korean culture, but a redirection of the human civilization.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

138 comments:

  1. I think this is one of your best pieces so far. This is a really important point.

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  2. A consciousness raising piece. Please write a book.

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  3. I do also remember that Tudor mentioned on the side that Korean Shamanism has a lot to do with Korea's high levels of Christianity, but as research by Danielle Kane and Jung-Mee Park shows, this is just not so!

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  4. Extremely insightful, and yes, please write a book!

    Quick note, though: you mention not trading excess food. Wasn't trading explicitly prohibited? I know that when the first foreigners arrived and tried to trade they were arrested (for being foreigners but also for trading). Lack of trading is a reason not to make more food then you need, and that obviously has its good and bad aspects.
    Also, is there any indication that some groups actually wanted trading? Was not trading acceptable because it was the law of the land, or because people liked it that way? (not trying to start an economics-religion war, just wondering on your take).

    And one last final question: what is it with beer joints being called "Hof"? I couldn't find a reasonable answer anywhere on the internets. Koreans certainly can't explain it to me.


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    1. comes from a german word Hofbräuhaus.

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    2. Thanks Wayne! This has been troubling me for a couple of years now.

      So were Germans the first to open bars in Korea? Or did Koreans try to open a "German-style-beer place"?

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    3. Koreans tried to open German type beer places.

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  5. I find it funny that low birth rate -- a common claim -- is blamed on Confucianism. Having no (or less) children is explicitly against Confucianism:

    孟子曰(맹자왈) 不孝有三(불효유삼)하니 無後爲大(무후위대)하니라

    Mencius said, "there are three things that are against filial piety. To not have offspring is the gravest."

    趙氏曰 於禮(어례)에 有不孝者三事(유불효자삼사)하니 謂阿意曲從(위아의곡종)하야 陷親不義(함친불의)이 一也(일야)요 家貧親老(가빈친로)하되 不爲祿仕(불위녹사)가 二也(이야)요 不娶無子(불취무자)하야 絶先祖祀(절선조사)가 三也(삼야)라 三者之中(삼자지중)에 無後爲大(무후대야)이니라

    Master Cho said, "According to the Classic of Rites, there are three things considered against filial piety (불효). To flatter [one's parents] and follow them blindly so that they fall into unrighteousness is first. When your household is poor and your parents become old, to not obtain a salary-attaining position is second. To marry and not have children, thereby cutting off [the possibility of carrying out] ancestral rites for your grandparents is third. Out of these three, to not have offspring is the gravest [offense against filial piety]"

    http://cafe.daum.net/myoungseonjae/NoGY/304?docid=18QU8NoGY30420120604161822

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    1. I had no idea that low birth rate was blamed on Confucianism, and if there's one Confucianist precept that is still subscribed to in Korea it is that your goal in life is to have children: it is a measure of the extreme stresses of raising a child in Korea today that so many are now opting out of doing so.

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  6. Whoa! That last paragraph was brilliant. Excellent article. I found it very insightful and thought provoking. Thank you.

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  7. Universalizing Korea's problems is an overgeneralization.

    Korea's problem is not modernity. It's problem is driven by its desire to be modern and it is that, combined with its recent historical experiences and peculiar culture, which inform its intensity in all its endeavors.

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    1. "Desire to be modern" is a critical part of modernity.

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    2. There is no "desire to be modern" if you are modern.

      Germany, France, US, Finland... have no desire to be modern. They are content and confident in their modernity.

      S. Korea is not. The country, its economy, its place in the world, is still a work-in-progress.

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    3. If you think that way, I don't think you understand what modernity is.

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    4. Whatever you purport it to be, Korea's problems are obviously not reflected everywhere. Therefore, Korea's distinctive problems cannot quite be universal.

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    5. If you do not see Korea's problems reflected elsewhere in the industrialized world, you are not paying attention.

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    6. Oh my... Korea has peculiar issues which do not simply reflect the problems associated with modernism, capitalism, materialism or consumerism. There is obviously something else at play in Korea that is unique to its history and culture.

      This should be obvious but your head seems to be lost somewhere in the clouds.

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    7. It is not obvious, so feel free to explain further.

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    8. GST: He is not universalizing Korea's problems, but rather that the problems that Korea is facing today are reflected in many developed/developing (and modern) countries. Increase in economic competition, having less children, materialism, spending many hours working are most definitely not unique to Korea. If you fail to perceive these in other places, then you might be the one who is lost "somewhere in the clouds".

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    9. TK: "It is not obvious, so feel free to explain further."

      According to the IMF, on a nominal basis, S.Korea's GDP per capita is $23k, behind Saudi Arabia, Cyprus and Israel.

      On a PPP basis, S.Korea's GDP per capita is a little more at $32k, but still behind Israel, Ireland and Taiwan.

      There is still work to be done. It is still too early for Korea to rest.

      Korea must catch up to Japan, and China is nipping at its heels. Under the circumstances, how can Korea lay reposed? Stress levels are high.

      Korea is not a senior member of the club of advanced industrialized nations. It had only recently earned advanced economy status. Within the OECD, Korea ranks in the bottom half in terms of GDP per capita.

      Bali, bali! There is still more catching up to do. Korea's place in the world is still being written.

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    10. FT:
      "He is not universalizing Korea's problems, but rather that the problems that Korea is facing today are reflected in many developed/developing (and modern) countries."


      Your statement is moot in its insipidness.

      Of course all capitalist countries share common problems. But some of Korea's problems are disproportionately magnified and that is the subject of our focus.

      "If you fail to perceive these in other places, then you might be the one who is lost "somewhere in the clouds". "

      Then for you, all of us who recognize Korea's unique problems are lost "somewhere in the clouds".

      Meanwhile, your head is buried somewhere in the earth.

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    11. Modernity is only a part of the problem. The problem is Korea's inferiority complex. Korea went from being a vessel state of China and Japan to a colony of Japan to getting invaded by the North to being a puppet of the US government. Korea has gotten its ass kicked for so long and now wants to prove that it is just as fabulous and civilized as all the other industrialized nations out there. But no matter how hard Korea tries, the western focus has always been on Japan and now China. Add rapid modernization, homogenous population resulting in conformism and groupthink, and an overeducated population with limited job opportunities, you get a hypercompetitive society with "keeping up with the Joneses" on steroids.

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    12. I meant vassal, not vessel.

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    13. Helen:
      "The problem is Korea's inferiority complex. Korea went from being a vessel state of China and Japan to a colony of Japan to getting invaded by the North to being a puppet of the US government. Korea has gotten its ass kicked for so long and now wants to prove that it is just as fabulous and civilized as all the other industrialized nations out there."


      Your exaggeration is typical but misleading.

      Korea's annexation by Japan is a sore spot but its relationship with China was mutually respectful and congruent with Confucian diplomatic protocol.

      The strings being pulled by Washington extend like fingers to many parts of the globe. It spins its strings like a spider sitting on its web, but SKorea, Japan, Australia, Germany and everyone else deferent to the American cow have gotten happily fat sucking on its milky teat.

      "But no matter how hard Korea tries, the western focus has always been on Japan and now China. Add rapid modernization, homogenous population resulting in conformism and groupthink, and an overeducated population with limited job opportunities, you get a hypercompetitive society with "keeping up with the Joneses" on steroids."

      You've thrown together a lot of hackneyed ideas in the bag here, some of which are neither here nor there. I think I'll leave it by the curb for the sanitation engineers to pick up.

      But I agree that SKorea has something to prove and it's out to prove it.


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    14. Why do YOU think Korea has something to prove and is out to prove it?

      Your little addendum about China and the US is common knowledge and doesn't negate my point that it felt it lacked sovereignty due to outside influences.

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    15. "Why do YOU think Korea has something to prove and is out to prove it?"

      Because of the embarrassment of the Japanese occupation and the impoverished conditions Korea found itself in following the Korean War.

      Korea is accustomed to success and Koreans are culturally motivated to prove their mettle.

      If Koreans were used to getting their "ass kicked for so long", as you say, they'd have nothing to prove. Mediocrity, as we find in so many places around the world, would be enough for them.

      "Your little addendum about China and the US is common knowledge and doesn't negate my point that it felt it lacked sovereignty due to outside influences."

      Korea is and was a sovereign nation. But even so-called sovereignty is informed by geopolitics, economic realities, and cultural traditions.

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    16. Ok, you just repeated what I had already said. And I never said Korea was "accustomed" to getting its ass kicked. And it was a sovereign nation? You call being colonized by Japan being sovereign? You should try doing some reading comprehension exercises before trashing other people's posts. Your arrogant tone fools no one.

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    17. "Ok, you just repeated what I had already said."

      Actually, I'm repeating what I had already said before you said anything.

      "And I never said Korea was "accustomed" to getting its ass kicked."

      If you didn't, you almost did: "Korea has gotten its ass kicked for so long..."

      "And it was a sovereign nation?"

      Yes.

      "You call being colonized by Japan being sovereign?"

      No.

      "You should try doing some reading comprehension exercises before trashing other people's posts. Your arrogant tone fools no one."

      LOL. Okay, Helen. Let's agree not to be fools.

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    18. It is one thing for Korea to get its ass kicked. That is a fact. Quite another to get accustomed to it, which implies that Korea got used to it, which I never said and don't agree with. If it got used to it, it would obviously feel no need to prove anything.

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    19. Okay, Helen, I won't quibble.

      What's important is that we agree that it's not modernism, the market economy, or the global trading system that are villains, but how Korea chooses to translate these ideas and systems for itself that results in its unique problems as well as successes.

      For example, it's not the market economy that suggests Korea should subsidize giant family-owned conglomerates at the cost of everyday people. This is a manifestation of Korea's interpretation of capitalism.

      Korea's exhaustive hours at work and school are also nowhere codified in any school of economic theory, but it could be that Korea's desperate catch-up mentality reinforced by Confucian values (high social status, for instance) drives Koreans to outdo others and each other.

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    20. Agreed... Although I wouldn't say "it's not modernism." I think modernism is a prerequisite but agree with that there's much more than that.

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    21. Yes, I think you're right.

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    22. Helen: “Korea went from being a vassal state of China and Japan to a colony of Japan”

      You seem to know a thing or two about Korean history. I, a Korean, am a bit embarrassed by my ignorance. We were taught in high schools many years ago Korea paid something to China regularly in the old days, but the history teachers and the textbook writers never made a big fuss about it, probably because they were too embarrassed about it. But I didn’t know Korea did that to Japan. Was Korea a vassal state of Japan too, or was it your misunderstanding?

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  8. Brilliant post that sums up so much. Thank you!

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  9. Bang on with the modernity, but I also think Confucianism plays a role in this. I have always thought that modern Capitalism and Confucian thought make rather uncomfortable bed-fellows. The combination causes many problems. Confucianism never used to cause problems because the status of groups of people was less affected by commodities and generally the ownership of things. As soon as modernity was introduced, as you rightly said, the problems started.

    Confucianism is not good software to be running on the brain in the modern world if you value happiness. This, however, is not a criticism, because really modern capitalism is the enemy, it is just that it sits better in combination with some cultural thinking better than others.

    If there is something about Korea's history I do admire it was their resistence to modernity and the belief they could go about things in their own way and I think there is significant shame to be felt for those that used the people of Korea in the past and forced modernity on them.

    Great post, by the way.

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    1. "As soon as modernity was introduced, as you rightly said, the problems started. "

      No, the problem started because Korea in the 19th and 20th centuries was a backward nation and found itself in catch-up mode.

      "Confucianism is not good software to be running on the brain in the modern world if you value happiness."

      You don't understand Confucianism.

      "If there is something about Korea's history I do admire it was their resistence to modernity and the belief they could go about things in their own way and I think there is significant shame to be felt for those that used the people of Korea in the past and forced modernity on them."

      WTF? You think Korea was always a backward country and content to be so? To the contrary, Korea was almost always a relatively modern and advanced country.

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    2. I never said they were backward, just wanted to be left alone. When I talk about modernity that does not mean I thought they were always technologically or intellectually inferior, just the kind of modernity that had eventually caught-up with them. The kind that values the acquisition of products to quench their desires for status, self-confidence, etc. Basically, the switch from needs to desires. It has happened everywhere, but my argument is that Confucianism is a bad match for it.

      You seem to also contradict yourself in your response:

      "No, the problem started because Korea in the 19th and 20th centuries was a backward nation and found itself in catch-up mode."

      Then..

      "You think Korea was always a backward country and content to be so? To the contrary, Korea was almost always a relatively modern and advanced country."

      Again, I never said backward in the first place and, if you read again, did not imply it either.

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    3. "Basically, the switch from needs to desires. It has happened everywhere, but my argument is that Confucianism is a bad match for it."

      Confucianism is fluid. It's not ideological. I don't believe it's a bad match but a very good one.

      "You seem to also contradict yourself in your response:"

      Civilizations are also fluid, expanding and contracting.

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    4. Confucianism has to be ideological, as it is a set of ideas and values laid down many years ago, which people live by. If what you mean by fluid is that is is constantly changing and is not true to the original ideas set by Confucius himself, then surely this must be true of any ideology or religion. No followers of any ideology follow it exactly how it was meant to be followed. It is adapted over time and tweeked to suit certain ways of thinking and biases. What is left may be somewhat different, but still has many shared characteristics which identify it as the same ideology.

      If Confucianism is a good match for modern capitalism, why are people in this part of the world so unhappy in their lives and ill at ease with it? You can't tell me that South Korea is one of the happiest places around at the moment, surely?

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    5. Confucianism is a practical ethical system that puts human and societal well being at its center.

      Confucianism answers to no higher power but man himself nor puts the happiness of anything beyond man himself. Confucianism is humanistic at its core.

      The values and ideas laid out by Confucianism are inherently fluid, not ideological (fixed and unbending, like revealed religious truth). The tone of the relationship between men and women, parents and children, government and subject, are amenable to practical necessity.

      Korea's Confucianism is going through a transformation as it segues from pre-modern to modern society. Koreans are still trying to figure out how to combine the old and the new. Transitions are messy things.

      The relative unhappiness of Koreans cannot all be laid at the foot of Confucianism. Confucianism calls for discipline, respect, and order, but exactly how shall this be applied? In my view, Korea's stresses are aggravated by its social changes and economic growing pains and informed by its desire to catch up with the modern world and to make its mark in it.

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    7. I read Tudor's book and I have to agree with TK that Tudor placed too much emphasis on Confucianism. I thought Tudor also placed too much emphasis on Shamanism. I find that outsiders often like to put simplistic labels. I don't think most Koreans would attribute the way Korea is today to Confucianism or Shamanism.

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    8. Helen:

      "I don't think most Koreans would attribute the way Korea is today to Confucianism or Shamanism."


      The converse is also true: Korea couldn't be what it is today without Confucianism or Shamanism.

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  10. "Korea's problem is modernity, and Korea's problem is the world's problem."

    "Modernity" is too vague a term. Perhaps you mean a particular form of global capitalism that has been imposed on or embraced by many countries around the world today, or more specifically, Anglo-American style neoliberalism? In any case, there are plenty of "modern" nations that are not stressed-out, dysfunctional basket cases. Ever been to Australia or New Zealand? Happiness levels there are certainly high. Many European nations that have rejected neoliberalism and instead follow more of a social-democratic model also do alright for themselves, I'd say.

    And what about North Korea? They've managed to reject modernizing globalization to the best of their ability. How's that working out for them?

    Confucianism versus modernity? It's just not that simple, especially in a world that has been decidedly postmodern for the past few decades!

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    1. Not neoliberalism, since the term "modernity" as I use it includes the fascist, statist kind used by the Imperial Japan as well. And while it is true that social-democratic model appears to work well (which is why I like it,) stress is a common factor in just about any industrialized nation, to a degree that was not imaginable in pre-modern societies. I do not see a term that better describes what I am thinking of than "modernity," although you are welcome to give additional examples.

      Your "what about North Korea?" question is irrelevant, and beneath your intelligence.

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    2. "stress is a common factor in just about any industrialized nation, to a degree that was not imaginable in pre-modern societies."

      Very presumptuous.

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    3. "In any case, there are plenty of "modern" nations that are not stressed-out, dysfunctional basket cases."

      Agreed. Korea's high suicide rate, manic study habits, stress level, and over the top competitive drive are not universal everywhere.

      Korea's problem is not modernism but its desire to catch up with a modern world that dismissed it for dead a century ago.

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    4. "...stress is a common factor in just about any industrialized nation, to a degree that was not imaginable in pre-modern societies."

      I think you are really idealizing the past. There is no comparison between the stress of disease, poverty and slavery, common features of all feudal societies, and the stress that people bring upon themselves because they are "not pretty enough" or "don't have the latest-model smartphone." The stress that comes from the former is beyond a person's control in most cases; the stress that comes from the latter is largely self-inflicted.

      What you are really talking about is consumerism, an essential feature of postmodern societies, but in most cases, people become relentless consumption machines through self-choice rather than by force. Personally, I come from a "modern" society (America) and live in another "modern" society (South Korea) and yet I only need to work twelve hours a week, with five months of paid holiday per year. That's enough for me because I'm not a brainless consumer who throws away most of his money on useless crap. It's a choice I've made about how I want to live my life.

      If you want to go deeper, you need to start asking yourself about human nature. Why do so many people feel the need to work so hard in order to finance a lifestyle of incessant consumption? It doesn't have to be the way. To give another example, happiness levels in Indonesia are far higher in my experience than in South Korea, and yet many people there live very basic lives in terms of material needs and comforts. Why is that?

      You can blame "modernity" all you want, and in so doing reinforce the common ethnonationalist narrative in which Korea is "victimized" by "outside" forces, but I would argue that one needs to take a decidedly "culturalist" approach, and ask why it is that Koreans so often take such an extreme approach to whatever particular social model they have chosen for themselves?

      As for North Korea, my question is indeed relevant because it disproves your claim that "modernity" is the problem here. "North Korea's Problem Is a Lack of Modernity" would be an equally catchy title, but only if I chose to traffic in such superficial and trite binarisms.

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    5. What you are really talking about is consumerism, an essential feature of postmodern societies, but in most cases, people become relentless consumption machines through self-choice rather than by force.

      Not so. "Consumerism" is certainly a part of what I am discussing, but again, the concept fails to include what Imperial Japan imposed on Korea.

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    6. There is no comparison between the stress of disease, poverty and slavery, common features of all feudal societies, and the stress that people bring upon themselves because they are "not pretty enough" or "don't have the latest-model smartphone."

      I take your point, but the latter appears to cause a lot more suicide than the former. I am not sure if I can so easily pick one over the other as you do.

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    7. TK: "I take your point, but the latter appears to cause a lot more suicide than the former. I am not sure if I can so easily pick one over the other as you do."

      Allow me to surmise that stress, physical hardship and suffering alone do not usually lead to suicide.

      The taking of one's own life, I conjencture, enters the realm of choice when higher order needs like meaning, purpose and personal value seem irreparably destroyed.

      And it is often the case that when lower order needs are met, it is the higher order needs that start to haunt us.

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    8. "'Consumerism' is certainly a part of what I am discussing, but again, the concept fails to include what Imperial Japan imposed on Korea."

      What Japan did to Korea in the first half of the 20th Century is called "imperialism." Are you equating "imperialism" with "modernity"? If so, you need to show how and why, which you have not done here at all. As I have said above, your usage of terminology in this essay is vague, and can easily be taken apart as a result.

      I keep bringing up postmodernism, which you keep ignoring, because postmodernism is distinct from modernism and modernity. Frederic Jameson, for example, building on the work of Ernest Mandel, differentiates the stage of monopoly capitalism, which would include the era of imperialism up to around 1945, from that of late capitalism, or the post-1945 period of globalized and globalizing multinational capitalism. This is relevant to your essay here since one of its main themes is dehumanization, which you argue is caused by "modernity." (Of course, it was modernity itself, beginning with the rise of capitalism in the 16th Century Europe, which created the category of the human or the individual subject in the first place, so it's highly ironic for you to make this claim.) Of course, one of the essential features of postmodernism is the "decentering" or "disappearance" of the subject, and many of the societal ills in of which you speak in South Korea today seem more characteristic of this phenomenon, and here the work of Jean Baudrillard is quite relevant: He argues that in the present stage of late capitalism, we live in a world of pure simulation in which signs no longer refer to an external reality, as they did in premodern or modern societies, but are largely exchanged with each other. This phenomenon is driven by hyperconsumerism, technology and postmodern or multinational capitalism, and is distinct from the earlier modern period of monopoly or imperial capitalism. Simply put, if people today construct their identities largely based on media images and constructs, or in Baudrillard's terminology hyperreal simulations, then what does it mean when those media images and constructs lack any sort of reality themselves? The question to ask is, and I have already done so here but you keep ignoring me, are people being "forced" to consume these images, or do they bear some personal responsibility themselves? Put in your terms, are they helpless victims who have been "commodified" by the system and thus lack any sort of agency, or, as I am arguing here, do they actually have a choice in terms of what they consume and how they construct their own identities?

      [Continued below]

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    9. [Continued from above]

      Perhaps this is all a bit too abstract for you, so let me apply it to your own blog. According to your own biography, you left South Korea many years ago when you were 16, and have been living in the US since then, with occasional short trips back to the "motherland." In the meantime, South Korea has changed radically, so that the Korea you knew when you were a teenager is simply not the same beast as the Korea of today. Moreover, even when you were in Korea, you were too young to have a very wide social experience, and probably mostly studied, so even then your knowledge of Korean society was largely informed by media representations. In any case, since you no longer live in Korea today, your knowledge of Korean society is even more dependent on media representations and constructs, the veracity of which you often seem to take at face value, or at least is often appraised through your particular ideological filter. At the same time, you present yourself as an authority on Korean culture through this blog, and the representations of Korea and Korean culture that you produce here are in turn consumed by English-speaking Westerners and, oftentimes, members of the Western media. In other words, they are consuming representations of other representations, which themselves can hardly be guaranteed to refer to an external or verifiable reality. Signs are exchanged with other signs: Pure simulation.

      To go even further: This past summer, a controversial video appearing to show two young Western men "harassing" a young Korean woman in a club went viral online and Max Fisher of The Washington Post interviewed you about it, since you are an "authority" on Korean culture. Yet neither you nor Fisher live in Korea and were unable to verify the authenticity of the video. In true postmodern fashion, you confused a simulation with the real. But isn't that what most bloggers do, since they mostly live online, within The Matrix, as opposed to getting out into the "real" world and writing about that instead? The only reason the video was exposed as a hoax was because people like me and John Power of The Korea Herald actually went out and interviewed the participants in the video. If we hadn't done that, Max Fisher would never have gotten off his lazy ass and run a (half-assed) retraction. The hyperreal would have continued to stand in place for the real, and in fact, it still does for many because they, too, are often too lazy to differentiate the hyperreal from the real.

      In any case, what we are talking about here is very different from the period of "modernity," which is the subject of your essay here. What I am arguing is that rampant consumerism, both of media images and of things themselves, goes much further in explaining the social ills of South Korea today than what Japan did to Korea a hundred years ago. In other words, Korea's problem is not "modernity," despite the very title of this post.

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    10. King Baesku:
      "He argues that in the present stage of late capitalism, we live in a world of pure simulation in which signs no longer refer to an external reality, as they did in premodern or modern societies, but are largely exchanged with each other."



      And as a corollary, in our modern/post-modern economy, what we consume is not so much the underlying commodity anymore but what the commodities signify.

      Modern consumers are in search of "images, constructs and simulations" distilled in baubles.

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    11. "And as a corollary, in our modern/post-modern economy, what we consume is not so much the underlying commodity anymore but what the commodities signify."

      True, although there was always an element of status signification via consumption even in the modern period (pace Veblen). The difference is that this phenomenon has become even more perverse and baroque in the present postmodern era. For example, there was a vogue for Von Dutch trucker hats in South Korea a few years ago, to the point that every third person you saw walking down the street was wearing one. How did this happen? Well, first a few Korean "talents" saw American celebrities like Paris Hilton or Ashton Kutcher wearing them, and then decided that it was "cool" and "trendy" to do some themselves. Soon, average Koreans decided to jump on the trend, and this "meme" went "viral" throughout South Korean society, as often tends to happen here. Even old-timers were wearing them, and I still see the occasional grandfather in a Von Dutch trucker cap today, many years later.

      What Koreans never bothered to ask themselves, and this is what makes it a truly postmodern phenomenon, is what "Von Dutch" itself actually signified. In fact, Von Dutch, whose real name was Kenny Howard, was in real life a racist and white supremacist who would have laughed to see his name on the foreheads of millions of non-white Koreans. Yet for the great majority of Koreans, "Von Dutch" did not signify a real person, but rather referred to a domestic star system that in turn is parasitic upon the US star system in order to constantly create new trends, and thereby keep the wheels of commerce spinning. "Von Dutch," in other words, had become an empty sign drained of any inherent meaning, referring instead only to other signs: Once again, pure simulation.

      The same phenomenon in reflected in the culture of plastic surgery in Korea (and elsewhere). When South Koreans get plastic surgery to "improve" or "enhance" their looks, they are doing so with certain aesthetic ideals in mind. And where do these aesthetic ideals come from? From a cultural-industrial complex of pure simulation, and it hardly needs to be said that the US is at the forefront here yet again. In effect, they are turning themselves into simulations either because they think these simulations are more "real," or because reality itself is simply unsatisfying for them, which is to say, not "real" enough. In any case, what we are talking about here is a very different postmodern beast from what was once known and experienced as "modernity."

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    12. Another example: "Gangnam Style." What does that song, and video, actually signify for people?

      Well, his famous "horse" dance could only logically signify "Rodeo Street" in Apgujong-dong, one of the most expensive retail strips in Gangnam. And yet "Rodeo Street" itself refers to "Rodeo Drive" in Beverly Hills, which itself was named in honor of the American West's cowboy heritage. So here we have three levels or layers of signification, which long ago detached from reality and now only refer to each other.

      Moreover, how many people around the world understand what the song is about? What does it "signify" for them, despite its massive global popularity? Hell, the local government in Gangnam-gu itself doesn't even seem to get the point of the song, since they are now using it to promote the district despite its purported satire of shallow conspicuous consumption there. Perhaps they know all too well that most foreigners have no clue what the song is really about, and are perfectly happy to ignore its meaning and "repurpose" it or "resignify" it for their own ends.

      And yet I would argue that "Gangnam Style" could equally be referencing LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem," to which it bears an uncanny resemblance sonically. In other words, does "Gangnam Style" simply refer to a district in Seoul, or does it actually signify another song performed by an American dance-pop group, which is to say, yet more signs?

      Once again, we are now lost in a realm of pure simulation.

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    13. I'd argue that once we start acting like pop music can offer us any intellectual insights, we're screwed. Of late I've been very sympathetic to Russell Jacoby's argument in THE END OF UTOPIA, about how we've gone wrong:

      <>

      And what you get when you celebrate mass culture as rebellious, is a bunch of people interrogating it instead of talkng about things that have real consequences and stakes for real people. You get people posting pseudo-critical discussions of twerking on Facebook, and dissecting the "deeper meaning" of rap videos, when where the discussion started was whether Korea's abject misery is a universal symptom of modernization, or something particular to Korea's culture... you know, things that actually matter to people's lives.

      (I've been guilty of that too, in the past, I'll admit. But I abjure the foolish trend.)

      For the record, I'd argue that it's foolish to think you can separate Korea's suicide rate from its rapid development; the ultra-prioritization of the latter over everything else--it becoming an end in itself, rather than a means to a better life--is surely very closely tied to the former, but you need to step back far enough that you can see that societies are more than just economies to actually recognize that.

      Which is to say, yes, Korea did become first world rapidly; the price of that, levied against every other aspect of Korean culture, life, and society (education; community; culture; arts & literature; politics; shared living environment; identity; etc.), was so overwhelming as to suggest that this was a poor choice of strategy. Certainly the sucide rate is in part tied to some of the costs in other areas; the shock isn't just modernity, it's the particular economics-centred form of modernization that has dominated in Korea, and which has left most other aspects of Korean society and culture at best wounded, at worst near dead... and has left a whole peninsula of people adrift with a "black cloud hanging over their heads" (as one friend who visited Korea commented, on the general mood of people compared to what she'd expected; it fits my experience).

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    14. (cont.)

      That said, it's also simply because nobody gave enough of a damn about their fellow man (and woman, and child) to do anything about the Korean suicide epidemic until recently. I hear the mayor of Seoul's getting good results so far with the hotlines recently set up, but I don't have numbers.

      For what it's worth, while I think all these issues are complex, I'd say a very important the Korean cultural tendency to take things to extremes, good and bad, that results in this. But what I see as I spend more time in places like Indonesia and Vietnam is that, whatever problems people in these societies have--and they do have problems--they don't seem to live under that horrible black cloud that so much of Korea does. This suggests that slower, more moderate development may actually be better. That is: balance and moderation are something Korean society isn't that good at, and there's an attendant cost that comes with that, along with (marginal, I'd say) benefits.

      Which, again, raises the question why the "50 years" it took for Korea to get from third to first world is something to constantly hold up as a victory.

      Imagine you're in a room that's just caught fire, and the door is chain-locked from the outside. You can get outside in two minutes if you grab the handy chainsaw and lop off one of your arms, then set the chainsaw down and lop off the other: that way you can fit out super-quick. You might bleed to death, but you'll be outside. Or you can take the next five minutes to try figure out another way: maybe pulling on the door to bend it so you can get out more or less intact, maybe smashing the metal door open, maybe climbing down bedsheets out the window... but you have some time, and can think things through and change course if your solution seems not to be likely to work. You risk dying either way, but this way you have a chance of getting out intact, albeit maybe with a little smoke damage to your lungs, and some singed hair.

      As I interact with more and more middle-class people in places where development has been slower and more steady (Vietnam & Indonesia, lately), the perpetual rooster-crowing of Korea's "fifty years! fifty years!" sounds more and more like the bragging of the guy who is armless and bleeding all over the place, but proud he got out in two minutes.

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  11. Your formula in discussing Korea as compared to the rest of the world is transparent and ridiculously biased.

    Korea's successes are unique and can be attributed to uniquely Korean traits, culture, and societal values. But Korea's problems and failures are universal, exist elsewhere, and therefore not attributable to Korean traits, culture, and societal values.

    Having read other posts on your blog, this pattern is consistent. Are you not aware that this framework is impossible to maintain with a straight face? Do you seriously maintain that the existence of problems elsewhere in the world in varying degrees somehow lessens the seriousness of those same problems in Korea or excuses their existence?

    Why do you approach the problems in terms of "solving" them, while putting forward the impossible "solution" of redirecting human civilization? The goal of modern societies is to mitigate and reduce the severity of societal problems, and those are reasonable goals for which reasonable solutions exist.

    You throwing your hands up in the air and claiming that we have to upend civilization in order to solve problems is an absolute cop-out, and seems to be clearly intended to deflect criticisms of modern Korean society. An honest assessment would be to look at the problems in context of what aspects of Korean culture and society are contributing to those problems, and what can be done to lessen the severity of those problems and bring them more in line with world norms.

    This entire exercise is a dishonest attempt at ass-covering and excuse-making if you can't take a realistic approach.

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    1. While I actually agree with TheKorean's post in many ways (i.e. modernity has causes a lot of Korea's current problems), I do understand what this comment is getting at. I too have noticed a pattern in posts on this site, summed up in this comment:

      "Korea's successes are unique and can be attributed to uniquely Korean traits, culture, and societal values. But Korea's problems and failures are universal, exist elsewhere, and therefore not attributable to Korean traits, culture, and societal values."

      Unlike GST, I think Confucianism is ideological, in that it has a set of ideas about how to live life (don't know how else to describe it, fluid is confusing at best) and Korea had a long history of it and clings to it fiercely and it is not helping it adapt to the new world. I still think they were rather forced into things by other countries, however, and that this might explain a lot about their current attitudes towards a variety of issues.

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    2. Korea's successes are unique and can be attributed to uniquely Korean traits, culture, and societal values. But Korea's problems and failures are universal, exist elsewhere, and therefore not attributable to Korean traits, culture, and societal values.

      (1) Name just one more country that went from third world economy to first world economy in 50 years, and
      (2) Name just one more industrialized country that does not feel the fallout of modernity's commodifying effect.

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    3. Is there any reason why Korea's social problems cannot be attributed to a combination of both a clinging to Confucian values and the rapid ascent to modernity. Is there some reason it has to be one or the other. Over at the Korean Gender Cafe there is a nice piece on traditional gender roles in modern Korean society. The author makes the comparison of women's roles in modern Korea being similar to those of American women post WWII. Even though women during the 40s were forced out of their homes and into the industrial workforce during the war they returned very rapidly to their original place, in the home, during the 50s and most of the 60s. This idea that Korea's gender attitudes are not all directed by Confucianism is never considered by westerners. Westerners seem to find Confucian societies to be strange and rigid, steeped in ritual and dogmatic adherence to gender roles, age and class. But I see very little difference in Confucian societies than I do in Western societies and the restrictions of gender, age and class that are informed by various religions. I don't know why Westerners cannot see the similarities.

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    5. For the first question, I would mention that Taiwan also went from third world economy to first world economy in 50 years. However, Taiwan did have the advantage of having a large number of highly educated professionals who came over to the island from Mainland China after the Chinese Civil War (Not to mention the KMT bringing over China's gold reserve with them), so perhaps the comparison isn't completely apt. I also want to note that Koreans who have visited Taiwan have noticed that life in Taiwan is relatively more relaxed than in South Korea (even though Taiwan is also a highly Confucian society like South Korea).

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    6. "Korea's successes are unique and can be attributed to uniquely Korean traits, culture, and societal values. But Korea's problems and failures are universal, exist elsewhere, and therefore not attributable to Korean traits, culture, and societal values."

      This is funny.

      I remember when TK used to say the opposite. A number of years ago, for example, he (erroneously IMO) compared early 20th century Korea to sub-Saharan Africa and argued that its rapid industrialization was a fluke. Korea's chances of rising out of abject poverty was no better than (let's say) Zimbabwe, he said, and there was absolutely nothing in Korea's history or culture to suggest it could be anything but a perennially destitute country.

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    7. Yes, Taiwan has been mentioned already in previous discussions in this blog about Korea's inordinately high suicide rate, and TK's answer at the time was a weak in my opinion -- he alluded to a theory stating that Taiwan's version of modernity wasn't the full blown "atomizing" type of modernity that runs rampant in Korea. But Japan also colonized Taiwan, and Taiwan also went from piss poor to first world status in 50 years...

      Your comment about "highly educated professionals" is not relevant here I don't think. If anything, research has shown us that higher educated people have a greater tendency towards unhappiness.

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    8. My comment above is in response to lau300's last comment

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    9. As lau300 correctly noted, Taiwan had the advantage of having educated professionals over from Mainland China with gold reserves while Korea had none of that. Also, Taiwan did not go through a time where their country was left to pebbles while Korea had a large portion of its infrastructure destroyed during the Korean War.

      It's also important to mention that the methodologies used by Japan to govern are fundamentally different than what Koreans experienced. Japanese sought to turn Taiwan into a "model colony", putting significant amount of effort into improving Taiwan's economy and industry. To this day, people in Taiwan generally do not feel much antipathy towards Japanese and some even view Japan as a favorable country.


      So yeah, I'd say the starting points of the two countries were nowhere near close.

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    10. @TheKorean - so with those two questions you are you implying that all Korea's problems are indeed caused by outside influences and all their successes attributed to their culture?

      You are going to have to help me because I don't even see the relevance in those two questions. No one is denying Korea rose fast, maybe faster than anyone else, but not all its issues can be down to that. Do you also imply their is something special culturally that enabled Korea's quick ascension? No one would knock them for their incredible story, but they weren't without help.

      Also, I agree many countries are suffering with the swift rise of modernity, again no one denies this, but Korea seems to have more issues with it (like you say in the article), what is it about Korean culture that causes this? Once again, those two questions just seem completely irrelevent to me.

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    11. (1) Name just one more country that went from third world economy to first world economy in 50 years, and
      (2) Name just one more industrialized country that does not feel the fallout of modernity's commodifying effect.


      And here's an excellent summary of your framework in action. Even after I just pointed out to you why it's ridiculously biased, you come and demonstrate how deeply ingrained it is in your view by giving us another example.

      Number (1) involves Korean success. Given that, you take the category (development), add your own artificial constraints (3rd world to 1st world, 50 year time period) that NARROW the category enough to make Korea unique so you can emphasize that success.

      Which would be fine as long as you applied the same standards and framework to the negatives. But no.

      Whenever Korean societal ills are involved, the net casts wide to capture as many comparisons as possible so you can universalize the problem and consequently absolve Korea of responsibility. The limiters and constraints fly out the window. Everyone has problem X, therefore Korea is not unique for suffering from problem X and we can dismiss criticism of Korea. Degrees are completely irrelevant. The goal is to deny Korean culture is responsible by pointing at other places where X occurs, regardless of whether the degree of X is even in the same ballpark. Classic equivalency with the purpose of lumping all countries together to blur distinction.

      If Korean success is involved, uniqueness and degree are forefront and suddenly important. Distinctions are focused on and despite the fact that many other countries may do X, TK will be glad to de-universalize the glob and highlight Korea as separate and unequal when it suits.

      As a prime example of a negative, see suicide rates. When TK mentions them, all of a sudden Korea being #1 in the OECD is irrelevant because, as TK showed above to re-direct attention away from the horrid Korean suicide rate, all these other industrialized countries saw suicide rate increases after industrializing.

      http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/factbook-2013-en/12/01/03/suicid_g3.html?contentType=&itemId=/content/chapter/factbook-2013-97-en&containerItemId=/content/serial/18147364&accessItemIds=&mimeType=text/html

      Change in Suicide rates: 1990-2010

      DNK -52.07
      EST -46.62
      HUN -44.92
      FIN -42.72
      AUT -41.35
      SVN -38.21
      CZE -36.92
      LUX -36.87
      DEU -36.84
      SVK -32.74
      SWE -30.77
      ISR -29.55
      NOR -28.66
      ISL -27.16
      ITA -22.37
      CHE -22.12
      FRA -22.12
      ESP -21.25
      AUS -20.90
      GBR -18.29
      CAN -13.28
      BRA -12.50
      NZL -11.43
      GRC -8.57
      USA -8.40
      NLD -8.00
      OECD -7.89
      BEL -7.81
      PRT 0.00
      IRL 0.92
      POL 11.19
      JPN 21.14
      RUS 22.49
      MEX 45.45
      CHL 90.00
      KOR 280.68

      See how "universal" of a problem suicide is. Nothing to see here. All same same. Never mind Korea having a 280% increase over a 20-year period, 3 times the next highest and FORTY TIMES the OECD average during that period in which a large majority of OECD countries saw large decreases.

      FORTY TIMES. But a universal problem.

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    12. We've already covered this in the suicide post. I brought up this point and gave Taiwan and Japan as examples, and TK's response was that other countries didn't modernize as drastically and rapidly as Korea (or in the same manner as Korea, in the case of Taiwan); hence, the discrepancy.

      If Korea's success are unique and can be attributable to uniquely Korean traits, culture and societal values, what does TK think these unique traits/culture are? And why wouldn't these unique traits also have negative consequences (such as a high suicide rate, hyper-competitiveness, or consumerism), which TK brushes off as modernism?

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  12. I have three comments to this review:

    1. the 19th century was hardly a time of plenty food. The explosion of the Yangban population put immense pressure on farmers and peasants. Therewaswidespread land concentration during the 19th century where the Yangban class amassed land at the expense of farmers. The 19th century was a century of famine and hunger caused by land dispossession and heavy taxation and led to several peasant uprisings and eventually the end of the Joseon dynasty. Your account of the 19th century farming is simply wrong.

    2. On the issue of Confucianism. John Lie, one of the most knowledgeable Korean American scholars I know, has argued that what people see as Confucian ethics in work and education in fact are of Japanese Meiji origin and hence not Confucian, but rather quite modern, yet still hierachical and patriarchal. I think John Lie's account of how this happened is quite good and could be combined with a reading of Carter Eckert's classic "Offspring of Empire".

    3. Your statement on "modernity forced upon Korea or perish" appears as a defense of Park Chung Hee, though you do later acknowledge the regime's brutality. The democratic government that Park Chung Hee overthrew had already developed a similar 5 year plan to that of Park Chung Hee. We will never if it would have succeeded because they were overthrown and South Korea entered 37 years of military rule and dictatorship. Would South Korea have perished without compressed modernity? Who knows? We can't say, because we can not see what Korea would have become had it stayed a democratic country.

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    1. 1. As I noted in the post, it is possible to pinpoint certain periods within the 600 years of Joseon Dynasty and find a duration of time in which the material supply was not plenty.

      2. I am aware of Lie's theory and I am partial to it.

      3. Defending PCH is the last thing I would do.

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    2. 1. Or you could, claim more precisely, that throughout most of 600 years of Joseon dynasty large parts of the population were exploited either as tenant farmers, bonded labourers and slaves to the ruling class. Additionally, the photo you show from 1890 was taken at a time when the majority of Koreans were living in destitution. It was hardly an example of plenty. Other than that I agree that modernity or more precisely the aspirations of modernity (of which there are many definitions) that pose the biggest challenges to society in Korea.

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    3. To point #2, Korea's geographically different, but I'd say "perish" is typical hyperbole. There are plenty of postcolonial states (Vietnam, Indonesia, and more) that opted to have less-compressed modernization and less economy-centric modernization and, well, see my comment above.

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  13. I agree with Joe that this is one of your best pieces to date. And, to reiterate a Facebook comment, I also think you should write a book: maybe a collection of essays? That way, it doesn't have to be about just one topic and you could arrange the subjects and theme to your liking. Doing it that way would also get you over the "but what would I write about" hump, too, LOL.

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  15. Modern Capitalism or simply modernity is nothing more than a system of ideas (lifestyle, political, economical, etc) placed by the western mentality. If you asked a group of space aliens to construct their own version of modernity whether it be capitalism or any other forms of systems it would be entirely something else.
    The problem with South Korea is it adopted modernity that originated from somewhere else. Compare North Korean social/political structures (low suicide rate/crime rate, social cultural beliefs intact, unity) to South Korea. And then observe what happens to foreign/ethnic groups who can't adjust/adapt to the host environment. They either commit suicide or leave.

    As for the book on emphasizing long working hours, obsession with education, etc... (which i think are great traits) is the culprit behind the unhappiness factor i think is motivated by personal agenda and it trying to change the social perception into a liberal one.

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  16. I have Mr. Tudor's book in the English version at hand, and what he says in the second paragrapn of the chapter under discussion is "Confucianism puts a premium on educational success and the provision of a stable life for one's family. This emphasis encourages people to strive for at least a baseline level of achievement and respectability." The other reference is"As Kim Dong-jin, advisor to President Park Chung-hee, recalls, "All we had was the hard work and brain power of our people." South Korea's Confucian legacy dictated that the starting point was the education of the populace: the nation's young has to be educated as well as possible, and after they became adults, they had to work as hard as possible,"
    I offer this only because this seems quite different to me than the quote that TK offers as the beginning of the Competition chapter. I have finished reading the book, but I have not gotten the impression that Confucianism is a heavily dwelt on as this post suggests. Rather, it strikes be very much the same as the way one might refer to the underpinnings of American society as reflecting its Puritan founders. We aren't Puritans any more, for the most part, and yet that heritage is, for better or worse, expressed in our legislature, our founding documents, and our history. (Someone is probably doing a graduate thesis on Puritans and the Tea Party even as I type. I will not read it.) Anyway, while this has been an interesting debate, I don't think it is quite what Mr. Tudor said in his English version.

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    1. Edit: That should be, "I have not finished reading the book." Apologies. I can read, but I can't type.

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  17. "At all other times, Korea had a strong, unitary central government that was able to implement its vision for improving Korean society. Needless to say, such vision was informed by Confucianism."

    Korea was a vassal state of China for most of the period you discuss here. Did that help "improve" Korean society? Ironically, it was "modernity" (and postmodernity) that gave Korea true independence and sovereignty.

    "A diary from the 17th century describes that Koreans ate 7 hob [홉] of rice per meal, or approximately 420 grams... In truth, Koreans were not lazy. They simply produced everything they needed without spending all that much time."

    Are you seriously allowing a diary written by one individual to stand in for the five-hundred year period of an entire society?

    "It is important not to idealize the past, as traditional Korea was hardly the perfect society. It was a monarchy with a class system.... But it is hard to deny that traditional Korea has certain charms that modern Korea lacks. There was no constant competition or striving that stressed people out--simply people efficiently doing what they had to do to produce more than what they needed, and enjoying their lives in the free time."

    It was not a class system, which is usually fluid and allows for class mobility. Choson Korea was a rigid status-based system with little if any social mobility. That's why there was far less "competition," and you apparently think this was a good thing.

    "Modernity--whose essential ingredients are industrialization and market economy--demands incessant competition."

    What about democracy and individualism, which also arise in the modern period? Are those "bad"? Are they part of Korea's "problem"? I thought you felt those were pretty good things.

    "To the people who reject modernity, modernity will be imposed. In the late 19th century, modernity first knocked Korea's doors in the form of French and American warships demanding Korea to open its ports. Modernity then busted down the doors with Imperial Japan, which soon enslaved the entire country in the following decades."

    What you are talking about here is imperialism, not "modernity." Korea could very well have "modernized" on its own in the first part of the 19th Century, without having it "imposed" upon it by an external imperial power.

    [Continued below]

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    1. [Continued]

      "The essence of modernity is to turn humans into resources. Market economy and industrialization, operating together, dehumanize, commodify and objectify humans."

      No, that it not the essence of modernity. What you are talking about is the essence of capitalism. Big difference.

      "This searing experience left Koreans with an unforgettable lesson: modernize, or literally, die. It is no surprise, therefore, that Koreans singularly focused on modernizing at quickly as possible."

      Then why did it take them more than two decades after liberation to get the ball rolling? Doesn't seem very "quick" to me.

      "One can argue that Korea also made up for its disadvantage by distilling modernity into its very essence: commodification. In its furious race toward modernity, Korea arguably managed to commodify its people better than any other country in the world."

      People are not commodified. Their labor, and hence their time, is commodified. But if people chose to work longer hours, it is often simply because they choose to buy more commodities themselves. Whose fault is that?

      "Koreans are both too busy to invest in themselves, and too concerned that their children will have to run in the same, tiresome hamster wheel; so they forgo having children, or have no more than one. Above all, in this inhuman modern society, Koreans are stressed out and unhappy."

      I disagree that Koreans are "too busy' to invest in themselves. What I see here is lots of young people hanging out in PC bangs and cafes for hours on end not doing much at all. I also think that their so-called "busyness" often takes the form of endless social-relationships management, rather than actual work But this is a cultural feature and quite distinct from the "problem" of "modernity," is it not?

      Your other error is to confuse Seoul with the rest of Korea. I live in provincial Korea at the moment and people here are far less stressed out here, and far less busy, than they often are up in Seoul. People here often smile and have plenty of time to shoot the breeze with random strangers such as myself. But as an "authority" on Korea, you already knew that, right?

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    2. "Korea was a vassal state of China for most of the period you discuss here. Did that help "improve" Korean society? Ironically, it was "modernity" (and postmodernity) that gave Korea true independence and sovereignty."

      A small quibble.

      If Korea was a vassal state of China then, Korea is arguably a vassal state of the US today.

      When America calls for soldiers, SKorea answers.

      We saw it in Vietnam. And we saw it in Iraq/Afghanistan.

      American troops also remain stationed in SKorea for over half a century.

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    3. The difference is that South Koreans have a choice. They could easily tell the Americans to leave tomorrow, but evidently a majority of South Koreans would rather have them stay. They reason is clear: Because as soon as the Yanks leave, the Norks will try to "reunify" the homeland, but of course a majority of South Koreans would rather remain a part of the "modern" world than return to some bass-ackwards, authoritarian feudalisitic past. Oh, wait, modernity is bad, so they should actually all want that, right? What, they don't? Oh dear, I'm so confused!

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    4. "The difference is that South Koreans have a choice. They could easily tell the Americans to leave tomorrow, but evidently a majority of South Koreans would rather have them stay."

      You clearly don't read enough of the The Korean's writings on the subject. He has stated unequivocally that South Korea does not in fact have a choice, and that even if South Korea asked the United States government to remove its troops, that the United States would refuse.

      Go ahead and ask him if you don't believe me. The myth of South Korea as helpless victim thrives in these quarters.

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    5. Well, if The Philippines could kick out the Yanks, it's hardly impossible -- especially since the US "empire" today is rapidly disintegrating before our very eyes.

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    6. Any rational observer with the slightest understanding of politics and international relations would laugh -- loudly -- at the suggestion that a formal request by the South Korean government for the US to withdraw troops would be met with a refusal (and subsequent US occupation by default).

      Yet The Korean (and many other Korea-as-victim believers) maintains belief in this fantasy. The reasoning for clinging to that absurdity becomes clear whenever an argument about GI behavior, environmental impact of US bases, or other topic concerning the pro and con tradeoff of the US military presence arises. I'll give you a sneak preview: "...but but but Korea has no choice and is therefore not responsible for making that decision and accepting the consequences of it!"

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    7. Bottom line is that if the Norks can defend themselves, the ROKs surely can, too, given how wealthy they are in comparison. They simply choose not to, for the reason I state above -- they'd rather remain embedded in, and a part of, the "modern" world. In other words, they actually want the very thing that The Korean says is making them so unhappy.

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    8. I don't think it's as simple as "telling the Americans to leave tomorrow". There is something at play in NE Asian politics that has allowed American troops to be stationed in SKorea and Japan for over half a century, and it is not just the North Korean situation.

      Our Cold War and hostile policies toward the North have gone on for an obscenely long time. They've asked for a peace treaty, or at least a formal "non aggression pact", but we refuse.

      When the Bolivian President's plane was denied passage across Europe some months ago, I think we witnessed the extent of American Imperium.

      SKorea may not technically be a "vassal state", but in many ways, SKorea, Japan, Europe, etc are client states of the US.

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    9. What are you guys talking about?

      Obama has put together a Pacific pivot of the navy, and the US has planted troops now in Australia. The NSA is now spying on all New Zealand traffic. It's moronic to think the US would leave the Korean Peninsula. It serves their military interests to stay there.

      The US is also expanding military bases into 14 African countries beginning in 2014. Anyone who thinks the US plans to voluntarily leave any country unoccupied is ignorant at best.

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    10. No, the questions is what are YOU talking about? Does the name Donald H. Rumsfeld trigger any memories for you? From a 2011 report in The Wall Street Journal:

      "“As you know, the new President-elect [Roh] has stated that he wants to review the relationship,” Mr. Rumsfeld wrote. “Rather than pushing back, I think we ought to accept that as a good idea. If we had recommended it, we could be accused of destabilizing the peninsula, but he recommended it.”

      "Over the next two years, Mr. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and Mr. Roh’s defense ministry negotiated a substantial drawdown of U.S. troops in South Korea, from about 39,000 to about 28,000. As well, they began the discussions that led to an agreement in 2006 for South Korea’s military to take control of its own troops in wartime. Since the Korean War of the 1950s, U.S. commanders have had wartime control of South Korean troops.

      "Mr. Rumsfeld so wanted to see a change in the U.S. position in South Korea that, in 2005, he quickly agreed to Mr. Roh’s request for wartime control. “You’re pushing through an open door,” Mr. Rumsfeld told Mr. Roh’s defense minister at the time.

      "Mr. Roh initially wanted the wartime control transfer to happen in 2009, but later agreed for 2012. Last year, current South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, representing conservative forces who were alarmed by Mr. Roh’s aggressive push to reduce South Korea’s reliance on the U.S. military, forged a new agreement with the U.S. to delay the transfer of wartime control until 2015.

      "But Mr. Rumsfeld’s desire for change in the U.S.-South Korea alliance was clear in that December 2002 memo.
      “We have been there since 1950,” he wrote. “It is time to rearrange the relationship and put the burden on the South Koreans.”"

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    11. LOL. I follow military operations. I'm not an expert, but it's clear what you're spitting out some bullshit. YOU CAN FOLLOW THE MILITARY TROOPS.

      This isn't just hearsay. You can go to military sites. You don't land thousands of troops in Australia, or shift the Navy into the Pacific, all while planning to leave Korean because of some bullshit you heard from Rumsfeld, three years after he left the administration.

      Here's an article TODAY, from Chuck Hagel himself.
      http://www.politico.com/story/2013/09/chuck-hagel-north-korea-syria-developments-97543.html?hp=r13

      "And, with North Korean soldiers eyeing his every move, Hagel told reporters traveling with him that the U.S. has no plans to reduce its military presence in South Korea, despite the ongoing budget crisis."

      I'm not a regular on this site, but I read military stuff regularly. Know people in the military in all parts of the world, including Korea. I could listen to and agree with a line of reasoning that Korea should ask America to leave. But what you are saying is bullshit and agenda driven.

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    12. "I'm not a regular on this site, but I read military stuff regularly. Know people in the military in all parts of the world, including Korea. I could listen to and agree with a line of reasoning that Korea should ask America to leave. But what you are saying is bullshit and agenda driven."

      Lol, that's a bit rich and irony-laden. What I said is that if a majority of Koreans no longer wanted US troops on South Korean soil, and the Korean government therefore officially asked them to leave, the US certainly couldn't just ignore that message. After all, that's pretty much what happened in the Philippines. The burden of proof is on you to show how the US would be able to get away with continuing to station its troops here if the Korean populace didn't want them here (in effect, South Korea would legally and officially become a US colony under such a scenario). In any case, this is a moot point because most Koreans do in fact want the US here, so there is no danger of the status quo changing any time soon.

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    13. Way to ignore the points on Rumsfeld, Hagel, and the recent positioning of the US military.

      Seriously, you're coming off as an idiot. Like I said, the US planted troops in Australia, is pivoting the Navy into the Pacific, and is even planning to position troops to land back in the Philippines. You're clueless.

      What the people want? Who cares. Sure, you don't ignore it. But that's a political obstacle, something to be considered, it's not a mandate. It's also manipulated with propaganda. Do you know nothing about the US military marketing? Military engagements isn't just warfare, it's marketing to the people you're occupying. It's marketing to the people you're sending to war.

      If the Koreans want to US to leave, then they have to build a strong strategy to win an inevitable battle of propaganda, financial and political incentives, scare tactics of potential enemies (NK, China), etc.

      If your argument is that Korea (or any other country) should ask the US to leave, then I may agree with you. But relying on public opinion, which is something that is constantly monitored, and engaged by the US military as a battle to win minds, shows naivety.

      The U.S. is currently reworking to deals to re-enter the Philippines. These politics and propaganda for the need of the US everywhere is part of the military battlefield. It isn't simply, "Hey let's ask them if they want us here. No? Okay, we'll leave."

      That's idiotic.

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    14. "It isn't simply, 'Hey let's ask them if they want us here. No? Okay, we'll leave.''"

      I'm afraid you're the idiot if you think that's my point, jarhead.

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    15. I think King Baeksu you make alot of good points here, but what do you think is the answer to the original question that was posed -- what is the primary cause of the extreme level of competition in South Korea? Perhaps you don't think competition is the main issue here, but assume for the sake of argument you do. And this has nothing to do with the question of agency. There is no question that Koreans as a whole are the ones responsible for becoming as competitive as they have...but what are the main reasons why they as a whole came to be like that? (I think one plausible explanation is that it is an accident of various historical and geographical circumstances which are particular to Korea)

      My opinion is that to blame it on capitalism and other aspects of modernism or postmodernism or whatever related have you, is a cop out -- for the simple reason that we are trying to explain the *extremeness* of competition in Korea. It's sort of like telling everyone that the reason why humans developed an enormously complicated brain that led to the development of things like space travel, was because evolution made it that way.

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    16. Again, if TK's answer is that the *extreme speed with which the country adapted modernity* is the the cause of the bad type of extreme competition that Korea has, then my answer will again by, what about the other Asian Tigers? Taiwan didn't modernize in the same way you say? But what caused the different type of modernity to take hold in Taiwan, and if that reason has nothing to do with modernity, could that be the real difference between Taiwan and Korea, and not modernity? And doesn't that mean then, that there are different types of modernity, and saying that Korea suffered from that one really bad type of modernity is tantamount to saying that *only* Korea could have suffered from this type of modernity?

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    17. Sorry, but short answer for now, JW. As I mentioned somewhere above, and here I agree with you, I think that determining why Koreans tend to be so extreme in whatever social model they choose for themselves, and that would include North Korea, the Choson period and perhaps earlier dynasties as well, is the key to understanding and explaining many of the issues raised in this post and in the comments below it. I think that the small size of the population, condensed geographical space and traditional mono-ethnicity have a lot to do with it: Ideas spread rapidly throughout Korean society and quickly take hold; clearly Korea is a group-oriented society, in contrast to many Western countries, so this is an additional contributing factor to consider. It would take a book at least to go into it all, so that's all I'll say for now!

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    18. Baeksu: "Koreans tend to be so extreme in whatever social model they choose for themselves"

      I don't think there's much to support this statement beyond speculation and hypothesis, and even that is very tenuous.

      It has often been stated that Choson Korea was more Confucian than China, but the ROK cannot be said to be more democratic than the US nor a greater champion of civil liberties than other leading democratic states. SKorea is very much happy to follow.

      SKorea's economy is a bastard mix of Adam Smith's free market and state-led capitalism and corporatism. There's nothing particularly extreme here except for it to be extremely unrecommended as far as I'm concerned.

      "I think that the small size of the population, condensed geographical space and traditional mono-ethnicity have a lot to do with it"

      You're taking current perceptions about Korea and projecting them across its historical past. This is a mistake, I think.

      If Korea was located in Europe, it would be an average sized country. Its population would be #3, behind Russia and Germany.

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    19. Dude, Samsung accounts of 20% of South Korea's economy and most people would love to work for it if they could. Seems pretty extreme to me.

      Neither the US nor Korea are democracies, they are plutocracies. Lee Kun-hee is the real president of Korea.

      True, Korea has traditionally been more isolated than many countries in Europe, so that's an important factor as well. But they are not nearly so isolated today, yet remain so in many respects. Why? It's a part of their "culture."

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    20. "Dude, Samsung accounts of 20% of South Korea's economy and most people would love to work for it if they could. Seems pretty extreme to me."

      Yes, true, from that angle. Samsung is both a boon and danger to Korea. Its percentage of GDP puts the nation at hostage to it. The Korean squid should be broken up.

      But is Samsung a particularly large conglomerate relative to its global peers or is SKorea's economy relatively small?

      Based on Forbe's Global 500 list of the world's largest companies by revenue, Samsung Electronics ranks 22, behind Toyota (8) and GE (16).

      The combined revenues of Samsung Group would bring it up to #6.

      SKorea's GDP is about 3 to 6 times smaller than Japan's, depending on the metric, and about twice the size of Taiwan.

      Taiwan, while a prosperous economy, has no global corporate champions. But if it did, its revenues might also make up a big chunk of Taiwan's GDP for the same reasons why Samsung does in SKorea.

      Taiwans' Foxconn/Hon Hai Precision, actually, does about $115B in revenues compared to Taiwan's GDP (nominal) of $474B. Of course, most of Foxconn's manufacturing takes place outside the island.

      Neither the US nor Korea are democracies, they are plutocracies. Lee Kun-hee is the real president of Korea.

      True, it feels like it. Or even worse, a kleptocracy.

      "True, Korea has traditionally been more isolated than many countries in Europe, so that's an important factor as well. But they are not nearly so isolated today, yet remain so in many respects. Why? It's a part of their "culture." "

      How is Korea isolated? Because it doesn't have liberal immigration policies? C'mon, that's a good thing. The future of Europe and America does not look pleasant.

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    21. Well, Korea has a capitalist economy, but the real extreme is in the value system that has come to dominate socially, and that extreme is focused on the pervasive and perpetual valuation of money above all other considerations.

      Korea's consensus value system is now centered on money... with "success" being either steady (uninterruptible) access to it (as in a "stable job" like a government position), or access to vast amounts of it (as in, getting a "good job" or marrying someone who has one).

      Those are really the *only* forms of success actually recognized in Korean society, beyond a few outlier cases in athletics. (Korea's first astronaut got less attention than Korea's last gold-medal figure skater, mind-bogglingly.) For everything from plastic surgery to ridiculous overschooling/hakwonization of kids to entering marriages that are loveless from day one (as long as the husband has a well-paying job) to working the longest hours in the OECD, every excess seems to gets justified in terms of money, and even the valorization of Park Chung Hee is based on his ostensible economic achievements... to the degree that when one brings up valid criticisms in other areas, people often say, "Well, yes, but remember how he built the economy..."

      Arts, culture, living environment, entertainment, fashion, choice of major field of study, choice of career: everything in South Korea seems, within the set of values embraced by the mainstream, to hinge on money, over and above (or even in direct contradiction of) personal predilections or interests or inclinations.

      I can hardly think of a more effective way for a developed nation to cultivate such a high suicide rate.

      I'd argue that the exaltation of money as the one an only value probably traces to Park Chung Hee's administration: they effectively manipulated the postcolonial and postwar system shock to bring about that change in values. But the (I suspect preexistening) tendency to go overboard on things, I don't have a good explanation for. (A few vague ideas, but nothing I'd venture here.) I certainly doubt it's "modernity": as others have pointed out, it's the specific form of modernity that Korea opted for, and that raises thequestion of why the country didn't push for something more moderate. The manipulations of the Park administration can only explain so much...

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    22. "(Korea's first astronaut got less attention than Korea's last gold-medal figure skater, mind-bogglingly.)"

      I don't know... personally, I don't care much for astronauts either.

      Obviously, both were firsts. But winning the gold medal in figure skating requires talent and skill while even a monkey can fly into space. :)

      "Arts, culture, living environment, entertainment, fashion, choice of major field of study, choice of career: everything in South Korea seems, within the set of values embraced by the mainstream, to hinge on money, over and above (or even in direct contradiction of) personal predilections or interests or inclinations."

      Korea may be money on steroids, but everything is, in the end, about money, everywhere, unfortunately.

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    23. GST,

      Ha, but my point was not about whether one cares for astronauts or figure skaters. Yi So-yeon is not just a trained monkey, she is a scientist and she was the first Korean to go to outer space. That resonates less for people than some girl who learned to figure skate real good. One is a sporting event the importance of which is hyperbolically exaggerated for the purposes of firming up national identity (one of the few glues that hold together this money-centric society) while the other is a person involved in the investigation of the universe and of our own species itself. (Her speciality is biotech, after all.)

      But science is one of those things not immediately monetizable, and so--despite various efforts by the Park and Chun dictatorships to popularize science, almost nobody in Korea really is interested. (To the point that Korean SF authors have complained to me that they actually have to cut back on the "science" in their science fiction to accomodate the tastes of a reading public that complains of "too much science" in an SF novel. And I'm not talking hardcore "hard" SF like Hal Clement or Greg Egan, either.)

      Korea may be money on steroids, but everything is, in the end, about money, everywhere, unfortunately.

      I agree that the worldwide adoption of the kind of capitalistic modernity we've seen happen is unfortunate, I really do. I think it's the main dilemma with which we're faced now, from which all of our other problems spring.

      But to generalize in this way is to overlook differences in degree that are really significant--differences in degree so extreme that they finally synthesize differences in kind. All of those things I mentioned above are happening to some degree in any developed society--some people are always marrying for money, the arts are always subject to funding cuts, overeducation is always happening to some degree, overwork is increasing all over... but the degree to which it's seen in Korea is seems to be very much in excess of what we see in the rest of the OECD. All I can say is that it's not just Westerners I've known who were shocked by the money-centrism of Korea: many of the foreign exchange students I met from places like Russia, Taiwan, and China were shocked that students would major in subjects they literally hate just to "get a good job" in the numbers that one sees in Korea. Almost every Korean I've known who's left Korea and come back after an extended absence has complained not just of how money-centric South Korea has become, but also of how all other values--community, family, everything--have been absolute jettisoned in the last twenty or thirty years.

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    24. (cont.)

      And most of all, while money is a concern everywhere, it isn't so extreme as to inhibit everything from the arts, to civil society, to education, to entepreneurship to the degree that those things are radically inhibited in Korea. I know it's not just the money centrism--Koreans are also very high on the scale of risk aversion, especially when it comes to career/money stuff. But the money-centrism trickles down--it justifies the excessive schooling, which inhibits hobbies and interests, which are the hotbed of entrepreneurship, of risky decisions that pay off not just financially but in terms of development, growth, and intangible rewards, of innovation... all things that are in desperately short supply in Korea.

      And while I have issues with happiness-centism as an alternative, when your society is leading the world in suicide, it's time start asking yourself what's wrong in the fundamental values. Suicide is about deep unhappiness, about despair. Money issues don't cause suicide in people who feel hope, who believe that they're on the right path and struggling. (When money is a means to an end, the lack of it just means you have to stuggle harder to reach you end; something common among artists and creatives, as well as among people who put their families first, and so on.) But when money is the end itself (path that in Korea often entails ignoring the self--one's interests, predilections, and passions), then the extended lack of it ends up simply being failure manifest... and having been well-trained in the tactics of self-abnegation, people just perform the last, and most complete, self-abnegation of all.

      That probably sounds all subjective, and I'm willing to see statistics that contradict my observations... but I haven't seen stats that contradict them yet. I have seen enough anecdotal evidence in my experiences, and those of my wife, of friends, of colleagues, that I feel pretty secure in believing nobody will be able to produce solid contradictory evidence. The strongest of which is that every intelligent or creative Korean I know (and we'e lucky enough to know a lot of both) has said to me some variation of the same thing I'm saying: South Koreas's miserable because the fundamental value system is screwed up and centered on money to the exclusion of everything else.

      But we can certainly move from anecdotal evidence, to test cases. For example, "I don't care what you do with your life, as long as you're happy," obviously isn't something every parent says to every child in North America. But it is well within the realm of mainstream parenting attitudes--it is both familiar and unremarkable among Western parents to hold happiness as an end, rather than wealth as an end. Meanwhile, whenever a Korean expresses such an attitude, the Koreans I know who comment on it approvingly note how unusual or uncommon an attitude it is, and that "normal" in Korea means pressuring one's offspring to get a "good job" (for varying definitions of "good.")

      I'm sure readers can think up an array of similar test cases.

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    25. gordsellar: "But science is one of those things not immediately monetizable, and so--despite various efforts by the Park and Chun dictatorships to popularize science, almost nobody in Korea really is interested."

      I'm surprised "geeky" Koreans aren't interested in this stuff.

      "I agree that the worldwide adoption of the kind of capitalistic modernity we've seen happen is unfortunate, I really do. I think it's the main dilemma with which we're faced now, from which all of our other problems spring."

      I think both egalitarians and libertarians are appalled by what passes for capitalism today.

      "But to generalize in this way is to overlook differences in degree that are really significant"

      I agree.

      "Almost every Korean I've known who's left Korea and come back after an extended absence has complained not just of how money-centric South Korea has become, but also of how all other values--community, family, everything--have been absolute jettisoned in the last twenty or thirty years."

      Korea has probably not yet gone over the precipice or else we'd see crime skyrocket and its social fabric come unglued.

      "That probably sounds all subjective, and I'm willing to see statistics that contradict my observations... but I haven't seen stats that contradict them yet."

      Creativity and ingenuity can't be all dead in Korea. It has one of the highest patent rates in the world.

      I think a lot of the problems may stem from Korea's economic model, the effects of which trickle down to all aspects of Korean society.

      What is Korea's economic model? Some variant of state-led corporate fascism, perhaps. Under this reverse Robin Hood system, salaried workers, mom/pop shops and small businesses are serfs in a feudal society ruled by the lords of the realm: Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and other chaebols.

      "But we can certainly move from anecdotal evidence, to test cases. For example, "I don't care what you do with your life, as long as you're happy," obviously isn't something every parent says to every child in North America. But it is well within the realm of mainstream parenting attitudes--it is both familiar and unremarkable among Western parents to hold happiness as an end, rather than wealth as an end. Meanwhile, whenever a Korean expresses such an attitude, the Koreans I know who comment on it approvingly note how unusual or uncommon an attitude it is, and that "normal" in Korea means pressuring one's offspring to get a "good job" (for varying definitions of "good.")"

      All parents want their children to be happy, but how? The collective memory of poverty makes Korean parents very practical, perhaps. It's romantic to pursue your dreams but when you're struggling to pay the rent, pursuing the dream can get old fast. Korea is also still the poor kid on the block of rich nations. There's more work to be done.

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    26. GST:

      I'm surprised "geeky" Koreans aren't interested in this stuff.

      I was too, but it really does seem like even among the small subset of Koreans interested in science fiction, most aren't interested in the science part of it so much as the techno-gadget part of it. That perhaps shouldn't surprise us for two reasons: Japanese SF has been a big influence, and is comparable; and SF in the West was more like this early on, too... the era of Gernsback pulps lives on best in the tradition of James Bond gadgets.

      I think both egalitarians and libertarians are appalled by what passes for capitalism today.

      I'd like to think so, but it seems to me like most people on both sides have just sort of accepted it as the inescapable fact of reality, almost like a natural law. (And especially the American Libertarians I know seem to have more objections to those who are appalled--whom they characterize as wannabe-freeloaders and whiners and entitled punks--than to what passes for capitalism today.)

      Korea has probably not yet gone over the precipice or else we'd see crime skyrocket and its social fabric come unglued.

      You're presuming Korean society would go over the precipice the same way American society would. That ignores cultural differences, differences of behavior among laborers, and so on. A friend of mine once put it very well: rage can be directed outward--often as violence or abuse--or it can be directed inward, often leading to self-destructiveness and eventually suicide. One could argue that for whatever set of reasons, Koreans rage gets directed inward more often than outward... hence the suicide epidemic.

      Creativity and ingenuity can't be all dead in Korea. It has one of the highest patent rates in the world.

      That's like saying, "The twentieth century was the most spiritual of times, look how many new religions appeared!" Aren't most of those patents tweaks--modifications rather than creative innovations, in other words? (Not that all patents anywhere are "innovative" in this way, but I don't see a lot of brand-new products, or ideas, or anything, coming out of Korea. I see foreign technologies getting remixed slightly, and there is creativity involved in the remixing, arguably, but it's not creativity on the scale of desgining something new, straight from ideas.)

      Delete
    27. I think a lot of the problems may stem from Korea's economic model, the effects of which trickle down to all aspects of Korean society.

      That's probably part of it. But people are willing to go along with, or indeed, eager to go along with it, aren't they? The people in the mom&pops dream of their kids becoming part of that machine... in part because people want their kids to be better off than they are, but also--crucially--because people expect their adult children to support them when they get too old to work themselves. A lot of parents betray that concern, even when they won't admit it directly: it's often unspoken but a clear expectation on both sides, especially if the kids manage to do okay or well for themselves.

      Which brings me to this:

      All parents want their children to be happy...

      All parents claim to want their children to be happy. I think, though, that what parents claim needs to be separated from how they behave. Even parents who beat their clearly depressed children, or terrify them with talk of hell (and get off on doing so) claim they want their kids to be happy. Parents are experts at making all kinds of claims to selflessness, to endless love for their children... but the reality is less magical. Parents are just people who happened to reproduce, by choice or otherwise. Having gotten pregnant, or inseminated someone, doesn't magically turn them loving and selfless and other-focused, something that is obvious though many of us like to pretend otherwise. Some of them are incredibly giving, some are incredibly selfish, and most are somewhere in the middle, just like non-parents.

      (And this, of course, is universal. Hell, if you start asking people why they had kids in the first place, you hear a lot of questionable, self-glorifying things. But as soon as you start examining the reasons people give, you start realizing the disconnect between proffered explanations, and the inability of people to explain those explanations deeper or further. Most people aren't sure why they had kids, once you get the to sit and think about it for ten minutes, though we all kind some of it is social expectations, some a kind of instinctual thing, and some of it is a desire for self-propagation. Plus some people--maybe a lot--want a little living dollie to dress up as they please.)

      Even with evolutionarily programmed emotional drives to have one's offspring thrive, there's far too much evidence for the fact that miserable parents love miserable children as company, and the Korean mainstream's idea of acceptable treatment for children--schooling to the point of exhaustion, no time to play or exercise, general approval of physical and psychological abuse by fascistic teachers, and sequestration in study from an increasingly early age, along with incredible stress and academic pressure that they themselves never endured as children, but which they do endure as adults--reveals that lots of parents are quite content to let their children suffer quite hideously. That they justify it on the basis of necessity and their love for their children doesn't mean that the necessity or the love are actually the reasons they inflict this on their kids: it signifies only that those are the socially acceptable justifications for inflicting misery on children... and misery of a kind that is markedly isomorphic to the misery that adult working Koreans themselves are expected to endure.

      (Just as young Korean women claim that they "need" plastic surgery to get a job interview, when we all know there are plenty of other pressures driving droves of young Korean women to get these operations.)

      Delete
    28. ...but how? The collective memory of poverty makes Korean parents very practical, perhaps. It's romantic to pursue your dreams but when you're struggling to pay the rent, pursuing the dream can get old fast.

      Are you speaking from experience pursuing your dreams? I have experience doing so, and in fact so do a lot of my friends. And here's the thing: people who want to pursue their dreams badly enough--and who have the idea that it's possible--tend to fight to find a way to do it. They tend to figure out a way. What we see in Korea is not the idea that one should pursue one's dreams on the side: in fact, talk to musicians and you'll find a lot of them believe the only way to pursue music is to do it full time; if you have a job outside music, you can't do music. Same for art, and all kinds of things. The writers are a little less brainwashed about this, but it was a common attitude among the Korean musicians I know--and I was on the indie music scene for several years, just after the turn of the century. People in Seoul and out in the boonies thought that way.

      (And of course one reason they thought that was because for many South Koreans, once you get a job, that job becomes your life. You may just be sitting playing bejeweled for hours in the evening, waiting for your idiot boss to go home, or you may be sitting drinking with the work team three nights a week, but music? Forget about it.)

      It's telling, though, that one of the common questions that would come up on Kim Hyung'-tae's message board (the Hwang Shin Hye guy) from young "aspiring artists" was not, "I am trying to do art and have no idea how to make ends meet, how did you do it when you were struggling?" It was always, "I want to do art, but my [parent*] won't let me." Kim was so disgusted with hearing this over and over that finally he told someone off saying (approximately), "If you want to do it, you will and nobody, not even your mom, can stop you. If you don't want to do it badly enough, quit blaming your mother and being a wimp, and admit you don't want to do it badly enough." Kim's response, I could talk about for hours, but I'll just set it aside and say, why is it that young people were constantly saying that their parents were forbidding them to do art?

      It's not just that people have no room for hobbies, though: it's that there's a consistent pattern in South Korean society of people who have passions, being told they MUST give them up. That much, I can say, I've seen so often it's become an expectation, far more often upheld than broken. Almost every student who consulted with me saying, "I want to do X, I feel passionate about X," would add, "But my friends/parents/other professors [etc.] told me X is stupid and I MUST give up X and do Y instead." Not, "I should do X on the side and have a day job," which is sensible advice in the creative arts, but straight-up, whatever your passion is, you must turn your back on that... as if that were a requirement for adulthood.

      Delete
    29. Note: The parents of people I've known back in the West--in North America specifically--almost always urged that their children's passions become a hobby, or, failing that, that a practical trade or profession be chosen for a day job unless or until their child could support himself or herself from the passion... unless their kid was an obvious genius, or had a killer idea, or whatever. But I can't remember one case where a Western parent did what the norm is in Korea, saying, "Stop [doing the thing you're passionate about] FOREVER and get a job.")

      A Korean political scientist friend of mine has argued the dynamic is actually very simple: most South Koreans, she's said, actually are miserable, and misery loves company. People cannot express too much happiness because it brings down a retaliation by the miserable. One who expresses job satisfaction gets shunned; one who is "too nice" or "too loving" (I mean kindly or gentle or nice, not sucking face) to one's spouse might be reprimanded or told one is being "too mushy." It's a short step from openly resenting the happiness of others to (however subconsciously) sabotaging it.

      And given the fact that when most Koreans I hang out with (and also many anecdotes I've heard from friends) see a nice, friendly, supportive, and loving family as the exception rather than the rule--so much so that they comment in shock when they meet one--I think it's not so hard to believe that what parents claim they want for their children, and what they actually steer their children towards, are two very different things.

      (I should also note that I don't think Western parents are necessarily better. They probably tend more commonly to fail in different directions, though, such as poor setting of boundaries, higher rates of neglect (as opposed to toxic micromanagement, though there are some who do that). I'm not saying Korean parents are unique in the disconnect between their claimed desire for their kids happiness and the lives they help build for their kids. I'm just calling BS on the idea we should take that claim at face value.

      Korea is also still the poor kid on the block of rich nations. There's more work to be done.

      Well, "rich nations" and "poor nations" is kind of an old-fashioned dichotomy, too. There are islands of rich in poor countries, and islands (or whole floodplains) of poor in rich countries. Korea has a floodplain of poverty, yes, far more than people who visit occasionally or live in Gangnam ever seem to realize, but it's not because people aren't being pressured enough to get a "good job": it's because people in Korea are overly pressured to get a "good job" (ie. a well-paying one) and to jettison everything that might stand in the way of doing so--even their own interests, passions, and aptitudes--and are so busy going through the motions of doing so, dwelling on the pain of what they give up for it, and repeating the cycle of enforcement on their own offspring, that they have been effectively depoliticized, to the point where assessing and acting in ways that might address that (growing) floodplain are simply out of the question.

      That's how economic instabilities work, of course, to secure the perpetuity of the system. But seldom does one see the monstrous tendrils for this so deeply wound about in social and cultural attitudes towards practically everything.

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    30. gordsellar:
      "You're presuming Korean society would go over the precipice the same way American society would. That ignores cultural differences, differences of behavior among laborers, and so on. A friend of mine once put it very well: rage can be directed outward--often as violence or abuse--or it can be directed inward, often leading to self-destructiveness and eventually suicide. One could argue that for whatever set of reasons, Koreans rage gets directed inward more often than outward... hence the suicide epidemic."

      Interesting point: Self-destruction as opposed to mass-destruction. Still, I think there's a difference in quality that informs suicide vs. antisocial behavior. Anger predicates injustice. In suicide, the subject has lost feelings of hope and value.

      "That's like saying, "The twentieth century was the most spiritual of times, look how many new religions appeared!" Aren't most of those patents tweaks--modifications rather than creative innovations, in other words?"

      You're right. It was a facile remark. But notwithstanding the problems with our patent system, there should be a loose correlation between patents and inventiveness.

      Did we really get a lot of new religions in the 20th century (relative to our population size)? I'm not sure we really have good data on that.


      "(Not that all patents anywhere are "innovative" in this way, but I don't see a lot of brand-new products, or ideas, or anything, coming out of Korea. I see foreign technologies getting remixed slightly, and there is creativity involved in the remixing, arguably, but it's not creativity on the scale of desgining something new, straight from ideas.)"

      I don't know... Korea is doing something right.

      http://www.bloomberg.com/slideshow/2013-02-01/50-most-innovative-countries.html#slide50

      What passes for "innovation" these days? Facebook? Twitter? Tumblr?


      "That's probably part of it. But people are willing to go along with, or indeed, eager to go along with it, aren't they?"

      Obviously, people are willing, but doubtful there's much eagerness to it. They're forced to go along, just as we all are.


      "in part because people want their kids to be better off than they are, but also--crucially--because people expect their adult children to support them when they get too old to work themselves. A lot of parents betray that concern, even when they won't admit it directly: it's often unspoken but a clear expectation on both sides, especially if the kids manage to do okay or well for themselves."

      Nothing wrong with that is there assuming one is not crass about it?


      "Having gotten pregnant, or inseminated someone, doesn't magically turn them loving and selfless and other-focused, something that is obvious though many of us like to pretend otherwise. Some of them are incredibly giving, some are incredibly selfish, and most are somewhere in the middle, just like non-parents."

      The parent-child relationship is pretty unique. To the extent children are the extension of self, parents are wont, naturally, to be unselfish with their children.

      I think there are few things in life that can really teach unconditional love and ego-expansion -- and parenthood is one of them.

      "Most people aren't sure why they had kids, once you get the to sit and think about it for ten minutes, though we all kind some of it is social expectations, some a kind of instinctual thing, and some of it is a desire for self-propagation. Plus some people--maybe a lot--want a little living dollie to dress up as they please.)"

      Yes... having children is often not motivated by noble intentions. But out of our animal instincts are borne some of the most sublime when many of us learn for the very first time how to love someone more than ourselves unconditionally.

      Delete
    31. "people who want to pursue their dreams badly enough--and who have the idea that it's possible--tend to fight to find a way to do it. They tend to figure out a way."

      Pursuing your dreams is not the hard part; it's the poor prospects of successfully living your dreams that dissuade and discourage us.


      "It's telling, though, that one of the common questions that would come up on Kim Hyung'-tae's message board (the Hwang Shin Hye guy) from young "aspiring artists" was not, "I am trying to do art and have no idea how to make ends meet, how did you do it when you were struggling?" It was always, "I want to do art, but my [parent*] won't let me." "

      That's probably because the questioners are kids.


      "why is it that young people were constantly saying that their parents were forbidding them to do art?"

      Art? Or the pursuit of vanity?

      Maybe because they know deep down that their dreams are a long shot and getting parental approval would help assuage some of their own personal misgivings?


      "It's not just that people have no room for hobbies, though: it's that there's a consistent pattern in South Korean society of people who have passions, being told they MUST give them up. That much, I can say, I've seen so often it's become an expectation, far more often upheld than broken. Almost every student who consulted with me saying, "I want to do X, I feel passionate about X," would add, "But my friends/parents/other professors [etc.] told me X is stupid and I MUST give up X and do Y instead." Not, "I should do X on the side and have a day job," which is sensible advice in the creative arts, but straight-up, whatever your passion is, you must turn your back on that... as if that were a requirement for adulthood. "

      Something must be getting lost in the communication. Only an unreasonable man would suggest turning one's back on one's passions completely, even as a hobby.


      "Well, "rich nations" and "poor nations" is kind of an old-fashioned dichotomy, too. There are islands of rich in poor countries, and islands (or whole floodplains) of poor in rich countries."

      Sure... Carlos Slim is Mexican and the number of Indian billionaires makes you wonder about their so-called democracy. Nonetheless, average and median incomes are useful metrics.


      "Korea has a floodplain of poverty, yes, far more than people who visit occasionally or live in Gangnam ever seem to realize, but it's not because people aren't being pressured enough to get a "good job": it's because people in Korea are overly pressured to get a "good job" (ie. a well-paying one) and to jettison everything that might stand in the way of doing so--even their own interests, passions, and aptitudes--and are so busy going through the motions of doing so, dwelling on the pain of what they give up for it, and repeating the cycle of enforcement on their own offspring, that they have been effectively depoliticized, to the point where assessing and acting in ways that might address that (growing) floodplain are simply out of the question."

      I'm not sure it's as bad as you make it sound. Notwithstanding culture, history and traditions, in the end, people are responsible for their own life choices to the extent they were able to make those choices. Modern Korea is still a work in progress and Koreans will have to figure out how to balance the pulls of social pressure, personal interests, values and the trappings of the good life. Maybe in another 20-30 years we'll see how they've settled in.

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    34. GST:

      Reposting, this time with formatting that got borked when I posted last.

      Interesting point: Self-destruction as opposed to mass-destruction. Still, I think there's a difference in quality that informs suicide vs. antisocial behavior. Anger predicates injustice. In suicide, the subject has lost feelings of hope and value.

      Overly simplistic. Anger and depression are both more complicated than this, and you're ignoring the socialization that predisposes people of one group to idolize acts of aggression (self-assertion) against strangers, versus dramatic displays self-abnegation before a (real or imagined) audience. I can think of cases in East Asian cultures where suicide or other violent self-destructive acts have been used as a protest of injustice.

      You're right. It was a facile remark. But notwithstanding the problems with our patent system, there should be a loose correlation between patents and inventiveness.

      I don't really know enough to say, honestly, because I don't know the patent rules in Korea. There would be a lot of relevant questions, regarding differences in the rules governing the awarding of patents, differing corporate and popular strategies for the safeguarding of inventions, and so on.

      I can think of at least one scenario where more patents would actually be a symptom of lower innovation, or at least less-remarkable, secondary innovation, and that's where the company's R&D culture depends primarily on applying tiny refinements or modifications to a technology invented by someone else. Someone producing core technologies is going to include a lot more in a single patent application than someone whose company is basically remixing and fine-tuning, I'd guess. But as I say, I really don't know enough to say. I just know enough to say that no, your assertion doesn't necessarily follow.


      Did we really get a lot of new religions in the 20th century (relative to our population size)? I'm not sure we really have good data on that.

      Nah, it was a cheap example. But I do have a strong impression that, at least since the origins of state religions in the West, the time of greatest tolerance to random little religions, denominations, cults, and so forth has been in recent times... especially the last few hundred years, a period in which the power and relevance of religion has markedly declined for most of the developed world.

      Delete
    35. I don't know... Korea is doing something right.

      http://www.bloomberg.com/slideshow/2013-02-01/50-most-innovative-countries.html#slide50

      Okay, now look at the other countries in the top ten list, and their stats, as well as the explanation of the terms:

      http://sipremium.info/2013/10/south-koreas-leading-rd/

      There's a lot of per-capita measurements there, which make me question the claims somewhat. Also, some of the "measurements"  invisibly privilege things that shouldn't necessarily be: for example, "tertiary efficiency" ends up meaning "the enrollment ration in all subjects for post-secondary students and the graduation of those who majored in science, engineering, manufacturing and construction." That's relatively meaningless, given the fact that overschooling is (and has long been) a problem in Korea--and was even back in the Park era. Yes, everyone goes to university, and yes, plenty of people major in engineering, science, and so on. But, anecdotally, I've known plenty of Koreans who majored in science and engineering because they had high enough scores on their University Entrance Exams to do so, and were pushed into it family, but who hated the subject and graduated with no intention to work in the field. (Chem majors at my old school were notoriously uninterested in science: they told me most chem majors were only taking the subject to qualify for a pharmacy degree.)

      What passes for "innovation" these days? Facebook? Twitter? Tumblr?

      I wouldn't argue they do, though I would argue social networking software could  potentially be very profoundly innovative, if reconceptualized in the right way. Bruce Sterling spoke movingly (at the TED conference about the design problems faced by a South Korea that will someday have to integrate North Koreans (post-collapse) into their economy. Such design problems are not inconsiderable, and social networks will likely play a role in the design of interfaces and on the machines that those people will have to use to play a part in the South Korean economy at that time. But South Korea's not terribly innovative when it comes to interface design: the best Samsung could do with Galaxy (the earlier models, anyway; I haven't seen anything recently) was to copy the iOS.

      But I'd argue what passes for innovation these days mostly happens in the area of biotech, high-tech, and pharmacy; in developing new medical procedures, and medical discoveries. But also, the arts. Part of my general point was that "success" is constantly attached to things like money and business, and that things like art, happiness, pleasure, and community have pretty much been jettisoned by Korean society. In Korea, what passes for "innovation" is the current mayor of Seoul deciding to take a page from the rest of the developed world and set up suicide hotlines, which, apparently, are helping.

      One Korean elementary-schooler I know here in Saigon recently commented, on going back to Seoul for a week's visit, that he dislikes being in Korea if he can't be going to school. Not because he likes school, but because aside from school, there really is nowhere else outside the home for him to go and do stuff, or be with kids. Setting up more parks and public common areas in Seoul would pass for "innovation," these days... and would be an improvement in the lives of many, assuming that there were accompanying innovations in their working lives allowing them the time to actually visit those parks and common areas.

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    36. Obviously, people are willing, but doubtful there's much eagerness to it. They're forced to go along, just as we all are.

      To some degree, yes. And there's also the efficiency with which the population has been depoliticized over the last couple of decades. (Which is to say, almost thoroughly.) But I think you're exaggerating: I think to some degree, Steinbeck's comment about Americans seeing themselves as "temporarily embarrassed millionaires" applies very much. People hate the chaebols out of one side of their mouths, while longing to live among those lofty heights and mumbling praises out of the other side of their mouths. The amount of justification I've seen for elite corruption is mind-boggling, and that's not something you can force someone into... at least, not without a regime of thorough brainwashing I hardly think you're suggesting exists.

      Nothing wrong with that is there assuming one is not crass about it?

      Well, it's the traditional way, and as far as it goes, whatever. But, I'll argue, yes, there is something wrong with that if it means forcing your offspring to study and take jobs in areas that they are not interested in, or clearly have no aptitude for. There is something deeply wrong with that, especially when it becomes widespread in a society: those who ought to be playing music are working in dental clinics; those who ought to be sweeping floors are holding out for an executive position; those who ought not to be anywhere near a classroom are standing at the front, reading directly from the textbook (what passes for teaching far too often), because it's a stable job. And as one Korean academic (an econ guy) I know complained, it's quite distressing to see just how little interest in their field of specialty most Korean academics have. This is why Korea has a lot of academics, but very few intellectuals: most seem to regard academic work--research, conferences, and so on--as pure drudgery. (He and I compared notes regarding our experiences with Korean colleagues, as well as academic contacts abroad.)

      When you have a society where so many people are training or trained for things they do not want to do, or will never do, you've stymied the creativity and the very vitality of that society.

      Delete
    37. "Having gotten pregnant, or inseminated someone, doesn't magically turn them loving and selfless and other-focused, something that is obvious though many of us like to pretend otherwise. Some of them are incredibly giving, some are incredibly selfish, and most are somewhere in the middle, just like non-parents."

      The parent-child relationship is pretty unique. To the extent children are the extension of self, parents are wont, naturally, to be unselfish with their children.

      I think there are few things in life that can really teach unconditional love and ego-expansion -- and parenthood is one of them.


      Well, and the operative word there is "can": we both know older people who haven't learned a bloody thing from experience, and we both, I'm sure, have met people whom parenthood has taught nothing of the sort that you mention above. I've come to see such claims to enlightenment the same was I see claims of enlightenment from religionists: as an expression of subjective experience, not of actual reality. People feel as if they're being incredibly selfless, and loving unconditionally. But those same people are often quiet concerned with forcing their children into a mold of their choosing--whether that mold is a liberal or a conservative one, assertive or passive, jocular or serious. It's nothing as simple as parents being flawed human beings: it's more like, parenthood is a flawed human enterprise, so much so that we really ought to look at the claims made by its proponents and practitioners with the criticality and awareness not to take their claims at face value.

      Yes... having children is often not motivated by noble intentions. But out of our animal instincts are borne some of the most sublime when many of us learn for the very first time how to love someone more than ourselves unconditionally.

      So they claim. I, on the other hand, have seen only a few cases of people who actually behaved that way, in addition to claiming it.

      Pursuing your dreams is not the hard part; it's the poor prospects of successfully living your dreams that dissuade and discourage us.

      Again, I ask: are you speaking from experience? People like the make out the poorness of those prospects to be much more poor than they necessarily are. I'm not talking about someone who is tone deaf but dreams of singing opera: a sane, loving parent would certainly try to give such a child a reality check. But the fact is that this isn't only true in the arts: people who don't love physics are bound to be crappy physicists. People who don't love engineering--the fine tuned math problems, the dilemmas and decision-making--are going to be crappy engineers. If Korean parents were routinely dashing their own hopes to have a doctorlawyerengineer child when faced with the reality that their son or daughter ought to be a nurse, or a painter, or to found and operate  an indie-music routing circuit on the Korean peninsula--because that is where his or her aptitudes and interests and talents lie--then I'd buy the idea of prospects winning out over dreams. I've met way too many people studying something mom and dad forced them into, who know they're not going to work in the field, to think it's just pragmatism that drives that.

      In fact, I can say that in many cases I've seen, it's selfishness, pure and simple, and the kids realize it, admit it readily if just one person will come out and say it to them. I could give you examples that would blow your mind, but I know that anecdotal evidence isn't proof, so all I can say is that this is my long experience. (Not just with Korean parents, mind, though a lot of stuff seems to fly in Korea that one would never get away with in a lot of other places in the so-called developed world.)

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    38. That's probably because the questioners are kids.

      What makes you think that? But even if we grant that, I'm going to overlook the chauvinism, and note that most creatives I know got into the arts and literature when they were young. They're not saying it because they're kids (with the implication that kids are dumb and out of touch and need to be yanked down to earth and bashed in the face with "reality", or, rather, with their lifelong obligation to be miserable) but rather because they're young enough not to have quite given in yet to the brainwashing. Again, from experience: if you've walked away from a creative calling, it's VERY hard to go back to it. I know this from experience. I imagine you probably don't, from the degree of dismissiveness you express.

      And that dismissiveness deserves a really long, hard look. The denigration of the arts and culture and creativity--and of young people--in Korea cannot, I'd argue, be separated from the very high rates of suicide, but also of depression, there.

      Art? Or the pursuit of vanity?

      As if no businessman or doctor were ever vain? As if no business major or medical student were ever pursuing his or her degree purely for reasons of vanity? This is what I'm talking about when I say the denigration of the arts and culture and creativity.

      Maybe because they know deep down that their dreams are a long shot and getting parental approval would help assuage some of their own personal misgivings?

      I think you're laboring under a misconception: your idea seems to be that unless one can become a millionaire, one should never pursue a calling. By that standard, people shouldn't do all kinds of jobs. Hell, we should all hold out for that CEO position, right? That's obviously stupid.

      But more importantly, you fail to see how your view is very much skewed, and specifically skewed in the extremely capitalistic direction that has been toxic to the arts and culture. Basically: people see actors as failures unless they are Hollywood names; authors don't matter unless they're best-sellers; musicians are irrelevant unless they're platinum-selling. John Ralston Saul has argued--and he's quite right--that it's the community playhouse, the small press (and its authors), and the local musicians who are the lifeblood of a national culture... and it is far from a long shot for someone to survive or thrive once they understand that, and design a career based on that understanding. Is it easy? No. But it's not like playing the lotto. On the contrary, it's more like any other competitive field: work your ass off, be smart about it, resign yourself to sometimes working a "day job" but be relentless and motivated, and given a little talent, you'll do okay at least. The dozens of musicians, writers, and actors I know in Korea (and abroad, too) can attest to that.

      By the way, yes: some people will fail, even with those more modest aims. But people fail in every field. Doctors fail--they get bored and screw up and kill a patient and a malpractice suit bars them from practicing. Teachers fail, and get fired for bucking the trend, or being poor teachers. (Not often enough, in Korea, but it happens.) Professors fail: they can't stand studying a subject they hate, plagiarize, get caught, and are booted from the field. Businesspeople fail. CEOs fail. Lawyers fail. That kind of failure is inevitable for some people who enter into every field. It's not a special property of the arts. People who pretend it is, usually are covering for a much bigger anxiety, one connected to their own personal economic dependency.

      Also: successful people fail, too. They just fail reflectively. The ability to fail reflectively seems--like most creativity--to depend on motivation above all else. It's a reality, but it's not a narrative that gets nearly enough recognition in Korea.

      Delete
    39. Something must be getting lost in the communication. Only an unreasonable man would suggest turning one's back on one's passions completely, even as a hobby.

      Also, to quote one of my Korean academic colleagues--one who few up in the West--"Ajummas are crazy." He was talking about the decisions mothers are enfranchised to make in terms of their kids' education, hobbies, etc. You say "unreasonable" like it's something that's rare in Korea, as if you know nothing of the schooling and cramming that goes on there under the watchful eyes of mom. Elementary schoolers are panicked about getting into a good university and having a good job. I think "reasonable" isn't an assumption we can make of serious participants in that system, willing or otherwise.

      I can say in my experience that most Koreans I've known don't have hobbies. I can count the number of them I've met who do on my fingers and toes, after over a decade in country. And I've heard PLENTY of stories of people being told their hobbies--playing piano, taxonomizing aliens, building model airplanes, drawing and sketching, writing songs--was a waste of time to be dropped so they could study more. (That's not to mention people whose stories include musical instruments being smashed or book collections being burned in a fit of pique by a decided insane parent… rare, though though always distressingly familiar in the telling.)

      Sure... Carlos Slim is Mexican and the number of Indian billionaires makes you wonder about their so-called democracy. Nonetheless, average and median incomes are useful metrics.

      But only so useful. After all, why is India's suicide rate so much lower than Korea's? And the rhetoric I've seen in India regarding address it is miles ahead of what I've see in Korea. (Or, one could say, decades ahead.)

      I'm not sure it's as bad as you make it sound. Notwithstanding culture, history and traditions, in the end, people are responsible for their own life choices to the extent they were able to make those choices. Modern Korea is still a work in progress and Koreans will have to figure out how to balance the pulls of social pressure, personal interests, values and the trappings of the good life. Maybe in another 20-30 years we'll see how they've settled in.

      For some, I assure you: it is every bit as bad as I make it sound. I know plenty of people who are trapped in relative poverty... and notably, almost none of them are the people pursuing the arts--most of whom have fine day jobs doing things like making stupid  Kpop videos or working in publishing or even pursuing actual professions (like medicine or law) while also doing award-winning work in the arts.

      The people I know who are trapped in poverty are the ones who are are pushing 30 and still obsessively studying for gongmuwon exams they're unlikely to pass, or dealing with an incredibly selfish (unemployed, abusive, alcoholic) parent whom they ought to just disown, or who have given up their dreams to work in a job they hate... but couldn't stand to do it long enough to bankroll their so-called futures. Some are just unfortunate--I have one friend whose story is heartbreaking--but most of the people I know in dire straits ironically ended up there by "playing it safe."

      Delete
    40. gordsellar: "I can think of cases in East Asian cultures where suicide or other violent self-destructive acts have been used as a protest of injustice."

      But suicide as an expression of protest is not what ails Korea. Koreans are killing themselves because they no longer feel their life is worth living.

      "I can think of at least one scenario where more patents would actually be a symptom of lower innovation, or at least less-remarkable, secondary innovation, and that's where the company's R&D culture depends primarily on applying tiny refinements or modifications to a technology invented by someone else. Someone producing core technologies is going to include a lot more in a single patent application than someone whose company is basically remixing and fine-tuning, I'd guess. But as I say, I really don't know enough to say. I just know enough to say that no, your assertion doesn't necessarily follow."

      It may not necessarily follow but some positive correlation probably exists. Korea isn't getting rich making socks and shoes. Whether it's modifications or breakthrough inventions, Korea is doing something to create market value in the fields of high tech, manufacturing and engineering... and now increasingly, entertainment.

      Here's a novel idea in building design -- the first invisible tower:

      http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/12/travel/seoul-invisible-skyscraper-tower-infinity/

      "some of the "measurements" invisibly privilege things that shouldn't necessarily be: for example, "tertiary efficiency" ends up meaning "the enrollment ration in all subjects for post-secondary students and the graduation of those who majored in science, engineering, manufacturing and construction." That's relatively meaningless, given the fact that overschooling is (and has long been) a problem in Korea"

      "Overschooling" may have diminishing returns but knowledge, even if not highly marketable, counts for something, I think.

      "But South Korea's not terribly innovative when it comes to interface design: the best Samsung could do with Galaxy (the earlier models, anyway; I haven't seen anything recently) was to copy the iOS."

      Software design isn't Korea's forte (yet). And Samsung's Galaxy runs on Google Android, which was a copy of the iOS.

      "But also, the arts. Part of my general point was that "success" is constantly attached to things like money and business, and that things like art, happiness, pleasure, and community have pretty much been jettisoned by Korean society."

      Yes, on some level.

      "People hate the chaebols out of one side of their mouths, while longing to live among those lofty heights and mumbling praises out of the other side of their mouths. The amount of justification I've seen for elite corruption is mind-boggling, and that's not something you can force someone into... at least, not without a regime of thorough brainwashing I hardly think you're suggesting exists."

      You can't blame them too much. It's orthodox wisdom that the chaebols enrich the nation, so what's a little corruption if it means a trickled down prosperity for all, albeit an uneven one?

      So there are conflicting feelings here: resentment towards a systems that is tilted in favor of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and poor, admiration for the powerful and rich, and gratitude that the very same big businesses pulled Korea out of the dark ages.

      Delete
    41. "Well, it's the traditional way, and as far as it goes, whatever. But, I'll argue, yes, there is something wrong with that if it means forcing your offspring to study and take jobs in areas that they are not interested in, or clearly have no aptitude for"

      There must be some aptitude or else it would be a poor economic choice.

      I think the trouble is that people make life choices based merely on economic aptitude.

      "When you have a society where so many people are training or trained for things they do not want to do, or will never do, you've stymied the creativity and the very vitality of that society."

      True.

      "I've come to see such claims to enlightenment the same was I see claims of enlightenment from religionists: as an expression of subjective experience, not of actual reality."

      Subjective experience is reality. The hard part is maintaining that "enlightenment" in the midst of daily reality.

      "People feel as if they're being incredibly selfless, and loving unconditionally. But those same people are often quiet concerned with forcing their children into a mold of their choosing"

      The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

      "Again, I ask: are you speaking from experience? People like the make out the poorness of those prospects to be much more poor than they necessarily are. I'm not talking about someone who is tone deaf but dreams of singing opera: a sane, loving parent would certainly try to give such a child a reality check."

      I speak from experience and observation.

      When parents discourage their children from the entertainment industry, is that a reality check or misguided dissuasion?

      I think it's a reality check, mostly.

      But despite everything, there's something and someone supplying talent to the K-pop, k-Drama industries in Korea. Creative bodies are moving in and producing entertainment for greater Asia and the world.

      "That's probably because the questioners are kids.

      What makes you think that?"


      Because only young people are unconcerned about the rent.

      "note that most creatives I know got into the arts and literature when they were young."

      Yes, of course.

      "Again, from experience: if you've walked away from a creative calling, it's VERY hard to go back to it. I know this from experience. I imagine you probably don't, from the degree of dismissiveness you express."

      If I'm dismissive, it's not because I don't respect art. I do.

      But I think motives and objectives matter. Why are you pursuing art? Do you really love art for arts sake? Or do you love the trappings of art -- fame, kudos, prestige, validation?

      "As if no businessman or doctor were ever vain? As if no business major or medical student were ever pursuing his or her degree purely for reasons of vanity? This is what I'm talking about when I say the denigration of the arts and culture and creativity."

      Sure, there is vanity everywhere. But there is more vanity in the "entertainment arts".

      "I think you're laboring under a misconception: your idea seems to be that unless one can become a millionaire, one should never pursue a calling. By that standard, people shouldn't do all kinds of jobs. Hell, we should all hold out for that CEO position, right? That's obviously stupid."

      No, I agree with you. I think the trouble is that most people who pursue "art" equate success with getting that role in a movie or drama; or performing in front of thousands. And when that doesn't happen (as it likely will not), that is interpreted as failure.

      And so when "success" is equivalent to winning the lottery, little wonder people have so many misgivings about pursuing the "arts".

      But if we can be happy with practicing our craft before small audiences then the pursuit of art becomes a reasonable pursuit.

      Delete
    42. "Basically: people see actors as failures unless they are Hollywood names; authors don't matter unless they're best-sellers; musicians are irrelevant unless they're platinum-selling. John Ralston Saul has argued--and he's quite right--that it's the community playhouse, the small press (and its authors), and the local musicians who are the lifeblood of a national culture... and it is far from a long shot for someone to survive or thrive once they understand that, and design a career based on that understanding. Is it easy? No. But it's not like playing the lotto."

      I agree.

      "By the way, yes: some people will fail, even with those more modest aims. But people fail in every field. Doctors fail--they get bored and screw up and kill a patient and a malpractice suit bars them from practicing. Teachers fail, and get fired for bucking the trend, or being poor teachers. (Not often enough, in Korea, but it happens.) Professors fail: they can't stand studying a subject they hate, plagiarize, get caught, and are booted from the field. Businesspeople fail. CEOs fail. Lawyers fail. That kind of failure is inevitable for some people who enter into every field. It's not a special property of the arts. People who pretend it is, usually are covering for a much bigger anxiety, one connected to their own personal economic dependency."

      I think it's a more "special property" in the arts.

      The arts are not something one can logically study for or where a proven path exists. In law, medicine or education -- if you follow the path, success is pretty much guaranteed. In the arts, no comparable certainty exists.

      But only so useful. After all, why is India's suicide rate so much lower than Korea's?

      I don't know, but the comparison may not be relevant. India is still very poor.

      "The people I know who are trapped in poverty are the ones who are are pushing 30 and still obsessively studying for gongmuwon exams they're unlikely to pass, or dealing with an incredibly selfish (unemployed, abusive, alcoholic) parent whom they ought to just disown, or who have given up their dreams to work in a job they hate... but couldn't stand to do it long enough to bankroll their so-called futures. Some are just unfortunate--I have one friend whose story is heartbreaking--but most of the people I know in dire straits ironically ended up there by "playing it safe." "

      Yes, it's unfortunate. We're all making choices between personal bliss and monetary return; playing it safe and going for broke. And some people are going for broke pursuing their perceived highest monetary return sacrificing everything in the present for that better future.

      What can be done? Besides reforming education and leveling the playing field economically, you have to let these things play out. People have to individually and collectively figure out what's important in life.

      Delete
  18. Wow, what an article. I agree with a lot of the things you had to say and the last paragraph was very insightful. One thing though, as you said, I don't think it's right to look only at Korean culture and traditions as problematic but I do think that they do play a huge part. Modernity did contribute a lot of problems but I think modernity heightened (fused?) the problems which can be traced back to Korean traditions and culture. For example: plastic surgery. Modernity plays a huge part in this because there is only one definition of beauty, which came from the West, and if you don't look it, it literally is very hard to survive. This is also heightened by Koreans placing a lot of value on looks and appearances. Our ancestors' definition of beauty is definitely different from the one now but it was always about being beautiful; looking the best. Of course, we're not the only country to do that but our culture but plastic surgery is another form of national pride. "We are the best and we have the best". Globalization only made it worse but these problems didn't arise because of globalization. It would have appeared sooner or later, probably not as fast and big.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Modernity plays a huge part in this because there is only one definition of beauty, which came from the West, and if you don't look it, it literally is very hard to survive."

      Korea's aesthetics didn't come from the West, but has been influenced by the West.

      TK noted SKorea's high rate of plastic surgery, but do we really have good statistics? The numbers seem to combine both domestic and international clients.

      What's more, plastic surgery in Korea is dominated by the "double eyelid" surgery, an inexpensive and relatively simple procedure. Elsewhere, my understanding is that more expensive and invasive surgeries prevail.

      Incidentally, the motivation behind the double eyelid surgery is not to look more "white". This is a myth.

      Delete
    2. "Modernity plays a huge part in this because there is only one definition of beauty, which came from the West,"
      You state this as a fact, I wouldn't be so sure about that

      Delete
    3. GST,

      Koreans may not get eyelid surgery to look more white, but they are certainly doing it to look less stereotypically Asian and to adhere to a more Eurocentric standard of beauty.

      Did you know that the Asian eyelid surgery was invented by a white American army surgeon who felt that Asians needed it in order to improve their appearance? See: www.newamericamedia.org/2012/12/pretty-in-plastic----k-pop-and-koreas-plastic-surgery-boom.php

      The relevant paragraph reads:

      Having grown up in Southern California, home to a large Korean American community, Professor Lee became interested in the explanations for Korea’s high plastic surgery rate. In her research, she found that the Korean standard of beauty has been influenced by the Western look, though the reasons are complex. “The double eyelid surgery actually happened in Korea as a result of U.S. occupation after the Korean War, when U.S. military doctors were doing reconstructive surgeries on Korean War victims,” she said. “One doctor, in particular, felt that alleviating the slanted, Oriental eye was one way he could ‘help’ Koreans, even though, obviously, this wasn’t an actual injury or reconstructive in nature.”

      If the eyelid surgery was looked at without context, then perhaps your point would be stronger. But if you look at the bigger picture, it simply becomes yet another part of the consistent pattern of wannabe Westernization among Asians.

      In order for Asians to fully develop and modernize not just economically but also culturally, we need to stop being in denial and recognize problems where they exist. Constantly being in denial and acting as if it's totally natural for all Asians to mysteriously strive away from Asianness and towards Whiteness is a deep insult.

      Delete
    4. "Koreans may not get eyelid surgery to look more white, but they are certainly doing it to look less stereotypically Asian and to adhere to a more Eurocentric standard of beauty."

      I think we have to be careful how we interpret aesthetic trends.

      Some things are natural and inevitable (the desire for bigger eyes), other things are wholly arbitrary (Western style fashion).


      "Did you know that the Asian eyelid surgery was invented by a white American army surgeon who felt that Asians needed it in order to improve their appearance?"

      This is not relevant. And people are wont to interpret the world through their cultural prism.


      "Having grown up in Southern California, home to a large Korean American community, Professor Lee became interested in the explanations for Korea’s high plastic surgery rate. In her research, she found that the Korean standard of beauty has been influenced by the Western look"

      People are also wont to interpret the world through the prism of the dominant culture.

      Of course, Western aesthetics have influenced everything, but Asians are not trying to achieve Western looking eyes. When that happens, it's called a botched job.


      "If the eyelid surgery was looked at without context, then perhaps your point would be stronger. But if you look at the bigger picture, it simply becomes yet another part of the consistent pattern of wannabe Westernization among Asians."

      Again, we have to be careful how we interpret aesthetic trends. Some things are natural and inevitable. Western beauty standards have influenced modern aesthetics everywhere, but the influence only turbocharged what were already existing or inevitable trends: taller, whiter, slimmer, more muscular, etc.

      Larger eyes are an aesthetic preference shared by everyone.

      http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/julie-chens-asian-eyelid-surgery-san-francisco-surgeon-weighs-in-223930281.html

      Lay, who has traveled extensively in Asia to educate colleagues about blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery) and rhinoplasty on Asian faces, says "The idea that women undergo these surgeries to look more Caucasian, or to 'Westernize' their features, reflects a lack of understanding of the Asian culture."

      How do you explain the peculiar aesthetic trends in Korea and Japan today? The move towards hyper neotenic traits and features, and the desire for everything "cute" are very un-eurocentric.

      I think this puts to the lie that the East is slavishly chained to Western aesthetics.

      Delete
    5. "In order for Asians to fully develop and modernize not just economically but also culturally, we need to stop being in denial and recognize problems where they exist. Constantly being in denial and acting as if it's totally natural for all Asians to mysteriously strive away from Asianness and towards Whiteness is a deep insult."

      What aesthetic ideals should Koreans hold in your view that would reflect more "Asianness" and less "whiteness"?

      Should Koreans desire smaller eyes because it is the trajectory that further makes us different from whites?

      It's not "Asian" to prefer small eyes and dark skin. There is probably no culture on earth that holds small eyes and some dark shade of brown to be aesthetic ideals.

      From the same article:

      "Quite simply," says Dr. Lay, "the reason Asian eyelid surgery is so popular is the same reason blepharoplasty in general is popular: because larger eyes are universally considered beautiful. Asian people – like most people - find larger eyes more attractive. It has little to nothing to do with the influence of Westernization."

      Contrary to politically correct beliefs, beauty is not wholly subjective. The parts that are subjective generally lie within relatively solid parameters.

      But I think there are at least a couple areas where we probably did go backwards as a result of Western influence. Most Asians today prefer taller noses and more horse inspired faces, but in my view, smaller noses and flatter faces are the natural aesthetic ideals.

      On the other side, hairless skin is an ideal that many Westerners have to shave and wax to achieve. Are they trying to be more Asian?

      Body odor is also a no-no that Asians in general have fewer problems with. And softer, more refined "metrosexual" features are a trend in the West that are probably inevitable over time. Are they trying to be more Asian?

      Despite Europeans' relative hairiness and stink, there are few Asians trying to give off more odor or grow more body hair.

      Delete
  19. I absolutely agree with the fact that problems brought by modernity (or capitalism) are not unique to Korea. It seems that in our pursuits for a "better life" we are capable of forgetting about what really matters. As you said yourself, at this point in human history there is no place for mediocrity and so most of us have to run the hamster's wheel, whether we want it or not.

    Having said that, I think that the reasons for Korea to have become a grotesque of the above situation lies at least in some part in its culture. Modernity in Korea blossomed due to the historical necessity you describe but the internal discipline, ability to sacrify totally for the greater good, ability to obey with no questions asked etc. - all these have been engraved in Korean Confucianism much before industrialization. They were displayed in a different way but were still present in Korean mentality. In my opinion, modernity found its best foundation in the combination of the two aspects: historical and cultural. Hence, the problems in Korea are so much more striking.

    ReplyDelete
  20. "By all indications, there is absolutely no reason for anyone in the advanced economy to work more than 15 hours a week to produce everything we need in life."

    "The essence of modernity is to turn humans into resources. Market economy and industrialization, operating together, dehumanize, commodify and objectify humans."

    You might have heard of these things called 'socialism' and 'capitalism'. People have been discussing them for quite some time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "By all indications, there is absolutely no reason for anyone in the advanced economy to work more than 15 hours a week to produce everything we need in life."

      "The essence of modernity is to turn humans into resources. Market economy and industrialization, operating together, dehumanize, commodify and objectify humans."


      I think the above are wrong and very misleading.

      Capitalism commodifies labor and this can by extension lead us to believe that the persons behind the labor are also commodities whose worth are proportional to the value of their labor, but this would be a mistake.

      Modernism also tells us that all human beings are equal and possess certain inalienable rights. Our system of liberal democracy has probably conferred more dignity to the common man than he had ever had before.

      Choson era aristocrats may not have had to suffer the humiliation of working and selling their labor, but whatever human dignity they believed they had came at the cost of the dignity they took away from the slaves and commoners whose labor they lived on.

      The notion of a 15hr workweek is about as silly as the 4hr one. Needs and wants are subjective, and the latter, absent constraints, are insatiable.

      Delete
  21. Despite my sarcasm in my last comment, I agree with most of what you say, especially about globalization. The squeeze is on, worldwide. But it is not caused by a cultural or social thing - 'modernity' - but class war, the drive by the ruling elites to push the rest of us into serfdom.

    ReplyDelete
  22. A recent story from Nocut News, via KoreaBang: "A male-dominated society? Korea might as well be called a ‘female-dominated’ society with the way men keep losing ground. Young men struggle to find a job and a wife. Older men are often marginalized at work and home. However, society, as well as men themselves, seem to be still stuck in the bygone Joseon era when it comes to gender issues. CBS Nocut News sheds light on ‘men’s hardship’ with a series of five articles.

    "Lee Su-hyun is working for a public company in Seoul. People around him envy his ‘blessed’ workplace but he is constantly filled with stress and anxiety. He doesn’t remember the last time he had a meal with his family and all of his waking hours are dominated with overtime work and business trips. It is his third year at the company but he is still the newest employee, no one else has started at the company since he arrived. Besides his team’s big projects, he also has to deal with chores such as photocopying and handling civil affairs."

    "However, Lee’s breakup with his girlfriend has become the most stressful part of his life. Although his girlfriend had been his support during difficult times, he recently broke up with her. Lee made his decision to break up with her since he was not ready to get married. Although he works at a public company, his salary is still low and he hasn’t saved much money due to loans and living expenses. The biggest problem has been buying a house. Lee hopelessly said, “They say men have to buy a house to get married but I can’t afford it.”

    Is the problem here Korea's "social system" and "modernity," or Lee's own attitude? Leaving out the issue of why he chooses to work so hard, why would he even want to marry a woman who is so shallow that she would prioritize home ownership over true love? A DINK couple could easily rent a place and work for five or ten years first, and then have more than enough saved up to buy their own home, even in Seoul.

    I feel kind of sorry for Lee's girlfriend, actually. It sounds like she was supporting him despite the demands of his new job, yet he dumped her anyway. Sounds like it's Lee who's the shallow one here. Is the problem here Korea's twisted, hyper-competitive society, or Mr. Lee's own peculiar hang-ups? I vote for the latter. Grow a pair and stop your whining, mate!

    ReplyDelete
  23. I highly doubt that worrying obsessively about having enough money to pass the marriage test in korea, is that guy's "peculiar hangup".

    ReplyDelete
  24. Excellent post with much needed points having been made. I would further add that it is perhaps korea's now "relaxation" of that contracted economic growth in line with other post-industrial nations and a general slowing down of economic expansion that the current social milieu can be placed within. If the balli balli PCH inspired model of growth can no longer be believed in then it is to the current and past social and economic injustices people seek to redress.. Gwangju.. Japan.. Workers rights etc. They cannot continue to be covered up by electing PGH.. and here I concur TK.. yet there are very specific Korean national problems to be resolved in a global setting of post-modernity.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Excellent article. There are really profound excesses to Korea's modernity that always bears pointing out.

    One thing not to be underestimated is how internationally aware Korea has become. This is from internet, pop culture, entertainment, export companies, tourism, and transplants. Korea is not the same country it was 10 years ago. To say nothing of 150! years ago. Or during the Joseon! era.
    That's a long way back. Internationalizing the Korean consciousness is going to happen, like it or not. It's not a good idea to throw away all attachments to the past. But this is what Korea has been doing.

    ReplyDelete
  26. This is a fantastic article. Do you have it in Korean? I'd like to share it with a friend but she would never read so much English!

    I think that if Koreans are looking for a less stressed form of modernity to follow, Northern Europe could be a model. I mean the Scandinavian nations and to some extent also my country, Germany. Many Koreans even come here and appreciate the more relaxed pace of life, and the separation of work life and personal life. And the free university education of course. ;)

    ReplyDelete

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