There are quite a few things for me to say about this country, hence this page.

Modern Korea is an amazing place. Seoul was thoroughly devastated in the early 1950s in the wake of the Korean War, as glimpsed in the first picture below. The second picture shows how Seoul looks at this point. If you think about it, jumping from one of the poorest countries to one of the richest (GDP ranking 15th, 2010 August) in sixty years is not a natural phenomenon. People in Korea literally worked to death in order to climb out of poverty. For instance, when they were building factories for the Pohang Steel Company (POSCO - now one of the largest steel companies on earth), construction workers vowed that they would "bury themselves at the spot" unless they finish the task several times faster than what was "possible" (fortunately, they made it). Korea has exited the status of a developing country long ago, and today is one of the leaders in the electoronics (Samsung, LG) and car industry (Hyundai, Kia, Samsung), with cultural products ('dramas', movies, music, food) that are becoming ever more popular. It has successfully held the Olympics (1988), World Cup (2002), and G-20 Summit (2010).

Seoul in 1950
Seoul in 1950
Seoul now
Seoul now

It should be clear that I very much admire these feats. However, to get beyond superficial understanding of modern Korea, one must face the dark as well as the bright sides, to the ultimate purpose of overcoming them.

The Group Mentality

In schools in the United States, one can easily find a group of Korean students moving about themselves, talking among themselves, and gossiping within themselves. Even in Korea, the boundary between 'our team' and 'your team' is as clear as the DMZ.

At the very top level of abstraction, one finds that Korean people are simply extreme. Since Christianity (which happens to support a strict distinction between good and evil) was introduced in Korea, churches have overwhelmed all corners of the society, including village communities, social activities, and even politics. South Korea is one of the most fervent followers of capitalism, whereas North Korea is one of the few remaining countries still sticking to communism. Korean immigrants have a reputation for working their ass off and managing to become rich and prosperous. The congressmen in Korea are famous for their fist-fighting in the National Assembly.

A map of Korea
Peripheral geography of Korea

The reason for such extreme-ness is complicated. First, one might consider the geographic position of the Korean peninsula; it is surrounded by countries whose size is much larger. Historically, the dynasties in Korea have defended themselves from those in China, and imparted cultural influences oversea to Japan. While doing so, it had to keep an extreme stance towards its neighbors, because otherwise it would have been swept by other cultures and lost its identity. One can even say it's a miracle that this small peninsula has succeeded in not only developing its own culture, but played a major role in balancing the forces of East Asia for millenia.

The biggest reason for the extreme-ness (though this geographic analysis is still relevant), however, is that there is simply no room in the society to afford not to be extreme.

A Society with No Room

It is not hard to see why everything in Korea is so 'urgent'. The nation has raced breathlessly to develop itself economically (often by sacrificing human rights and the low tiers of the social hierarchy). It is still divided in two halves, each of which is spending a lot of energy to stay alert of a potential conflict. Finally, it is a small land (more so because it's divided) with a lot of population, which is concentrated in even smaller areas.

Consequently, this feeling of 'no room' is pervasive in the society, which you can experience immediately in the streets, subways, and department stores. Every service is ever so quick, everyone is rushing to wherever he is heading, and the only thing a person can care to defend is himself and his family. All middle school students are competing fiercely for high school, all high school students are competing fiercely for college, all college students are competing fiercely for jobs, but few of them know why they do what they do.

Open Discrimination

The worst side effect of this lack of room is that discrimination is prevalent. A crucial medium for this phenomenon is the mandatory army service. In Korea, every "able-bodied" male has to serve in the army for a little less than two years, no matter whether they are conscious objectors or pracitioners of nonviolence. The point of the army, however, is as much of establishing an absolute heirarchy in the society as of defending against North Korea. In the army, rather than going through a well-provided, efficient military training for battles, people learn to obey their superiors unconditionally and to order about their inferiors, without the slightest concern for human dignitiy or personal privacy.

North Korea
A military march in North Korea

The discrimination, then, permeates naturally to each segment of the society - in companies, in homes, and in schools. As long as women don't serve in the army, they will never gain an equal status with men. From elementary school, students learn to categorically obey their teachers, who have the right to exert (possibly severe) physical punishment. Even though English is promoted (too much) as part of the cosmopolitan efforts, people still feel very foreign to those who are not from Korea. This is very good for white-skinned, English-speaking people (believe me, if you're one, and you're in a crowded place in Seoul, they will try to take a picture with you), and very bad for everyone else. For instance, many from South Asia do much of '3D' works in Korea, and they are looked down by those who themselves don't have anything to offer to the society.

What to Do

It takes time for a society to become truly advanced, because some aspects of a wealthy society (creativity, generosity, curiosity) cannot be obtained without a little 'laziness'. Korea has managed to develop itself incredibly fast economically, and now it's time for it to develop itself in other ways. In fact, this is already happening. As there is more wealth, people are starting to look at 'optional' areas such as the world peace, environment, and academic advancement. But there are several obstacles to overcome.

First of all, unification of the two Koreas is indispensible. There are some people who think South and North Korea are two quite separate countries, so let me be clear. There is only one Korea. Just as Germany was considered (more or less) one country when it was split in East and West, Korea should be regarded one country that is waiting to be reunited. There are many political forces involved to prevent this re-unification, but it must be done for Korea to go anywhere beyond the present state. Then the energy and money spent on defense can be redirected to more productive causes; the army conscription, which as seen is a major reason for many ailments of the society, can be reduced or even removed; and the relatives and families who are split across the peninsula can be united again. Rather than trying to prevent this from happening for national interests, other countries must support and collaborate with Korea to make it happen for humanitarian and, in a long run, economic reasons.

Given more time, we will observe that Korea will slowly morph into a truly advanced nation which is solid not just in economic and military power, but in humanitarian and cosmopolitan efforts.

My View

I try to transcend nationality whenever I can (my use of the non-Korean pseudonym Karl Stratos may be interpreted as part of this endeavor), but I have come to realize that it is unwise to escape from one's nationality. No matter where I go, I will always be treated as a Korean (even if I shift my citizenship). This raises the issue of destiny and so forth, but the bottom line is that whether I like it or not, I have to live as a Korean. And if I have to, it follows that I will benefit more if I enjoy living as a Korean. Although I will personally strive to overcome nationality and treat every person as a dignified human based soly on his or her character, I have come to accept the invitation from Korea. May Korea prosper, along with all other countries on this planet.

A temple in mountain mist
The Umunsa Temple in mountain mist

Home Home