Leaders cheered, hurried people for future
By Lee Chang-sup
Chief Editorial Writer of The Korea Times
Watching the 2010 World Cup matches in South Africa, one billion viewers may have fancied that they could catch a glimpse of what 32 participating countries are. Certainly, they could see young Koreans in action imparting the image and substance of Korea today. Their way of thinking and lifestyle give you the clue of who Koreans are and what Korea will be like in the future.
The Korean supporters, the Red Devils, created their own culture voluntarily and spontaneously. It epitomizes passion, creativity, a freewheeling lifestyle, and a law-abiding spirit. These young Koreans, mostly born after the 1988 Seoul Olympics, are proactive designers of their own destiny. They do not wait passively until their dreams come true. Their dynamic, informal, joyful and creative way of thinking has been in evidence since the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup.
Another significant change is the willingness of the Red Devils to use the national flag, to write their hopes on it and scroll it along large sections of supporters. Even after watching a match on giant screens, they stay behind to clean up the streets. This Red Devil spirit will prevail as a guiding culture for the future Korea.
Interestingly, their fathers, despite their support for earlier national teams, were afraid of wearing red shirts. The color, after all, conjured up North Korea. For the Cold War generation, red meant Communism. But for the new generation, red means passion, can-do-spirit, freedom, creativity and imagination.
Lee O-ryeong, a former professor-culture minister, noted that Koreans have enormous potential. “Once they find a trigger point, they mobilize their collective energy and passion for a single cause or an objective,” he said.
If you look into the national characteristics, you can identify a can-do spirit, a Ppalli, Ppalli (hurry-up, hurry-up) culture, and a Shinpparam (cheer-up culture). State leaders have utilized these Korean traits as a driving force to “mobilize” people in nation building.
The can-do spirit and Ppalli Ppalli lifestyle may be seen as the byproduct of the military culture under the authoritarian regimes from the 1960s till the late 1980s. These characteristics have contributed significantly to making Korea what it is today. They also have a negative aspect, however. In Korea, all able young men over 19 must undergo two-year mandatory military service. In the barracks, seniors indoctrinate juniors to finish up everything before the deadline they set. By the time they are discharged, young men find the can-do spirit and Ppalli Ppalli culture part of their mental make-up.
Chung Ju-yung, the Hyundai group founder, was the epitome of the can-do spirit and Ppalli, Ppalli culture. Before the Hyundai shipyard, now the world’s largest and most efficient ship builder, was built in Ulsan in the late 1980s, he went to Barclays Bank in London and borrowed money to start shipbuilding. In a meeting with the president of the British bank, Chung produced a coin showing the turtle ship that admiral Yi Sun-shin deployed against the invading Japanese (1592-1598)during Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), and said the Koreans have a track record of building ships from ancient times. “If you lend us money, we will build the ship and repay the loan on time,” he promised. After receiving a commitment from Barclays, he told shipowners that Hyundai had borrowed money to fulfill orders. Thus he was able to find the financing and secure shipbuilding orders before the completion of the yard.
Chung ran his company in can-do and Ppalli, Ppalli mode. Ship delivery and loan repayments were made on time. Living under the 36-year-old Japanese occupation and during the Korean War (1950-53), Koreans in dire poverty had to complete everything on deadline or earlier. This desperate survival instinct was necessary to feed their families. All poor Koreans devoted day and night to realize the assigned tasks ahead of time over the decades.
Western observers have identified “Shinpparam,””Ppalli Ppalli,” “can-do spirit,” “Han,” and the Red Devil spirit as defining the psyche of the Korean subconsciousness. Such overgeneralization and oversimplification is quite misleading, according to Moon Ok-pyo, professor of anthropology and the dean of the graduate school at the Academy of Korean Studies.
“The spirit or soul of Koreans is not determined by biological genes,” she said. “Such an overgeneralization anticipates a conclusion about what types of genes Korea should develop for a more prosperous and creative society. Such a way of thinking is unscientific and appeals to popular and cheap human science.”
“Culture changes over time as it is the reflection of historical, political and economic and social situations and circumstances. National soul or characteristics change over time. Its expression also varies according to social class, gender and generation,” she added.
For example, she says, the “Shinpparam” culture appeared in society in the 1980s. Under the authoritarian Park Chung-hee era, education was focused on frugality, moderation and suppression of desire. Leaders coined the catchphrase, “Let’s live well together” in an apparent attempt to rebuild the war-torn, divided, destitute and poor Korea.”
Following the assassination of Park, another military regime led by Chun Doo-hwan controlled the country in the 1980s. The economy was booming although authoritarian rule prevailed. Those in power reached a consensus on boosting the spirit of Koreans. Many scholars defined the period of 1980s-2000s as the age of morale or spirit. Logic or reason had no place in the Korean society in their blind pursuit of morale-boosting, she said. This is attributable to emphasizing the boosting of morale and de-emphasizing logic or reason.
“When you use “Ppalli Ppalli,” “can-do spirit,” “pot spirit (saucepan temperament or naembi geungseong in Korean) and Red Devil spirit in defining Koreans, you imply that Koreans have tremendous initiative, and are aggressive and positive, and that they react quickly to rapidly changing situations and have strong talent in problem-solving. These descriptions imply that once Koreans decide to do something, they can do it with all their energy and devotion. Such characterizations also indicate that Koreans are not sophisticated, that they are crude, sensitive and have a short memory and are prone to making mistakes,” she added.
Have Koreans manifested such traits since ancient times? Moon insists that such characteristics are not the byproduct of genes, but the reflection of history. Modern Korea is dotted with colonization, war and destruction. In the 1950s-1960s, South Korea was poorer than North Korea. Many poor people could not eat even barley gruel. Koreans had to stand on their own feet after the near-destruction of the country, Japan’s colonial rule, ideological clashes and war.
Under such extreme circumstances, “Koreans had to make something out of nothing even at the risk of losing their life,” she said. “Koreans were exposed to a desperate situation. Unless they set up targets and staked everything on achieving them, they could not survive. The government and people needed to work together in unanimity to overcome crisis.”
Koreans at that time did not have the luxury of being cool-headed, analytic and thorough before starting things. That is why now they must be sometimes reckless, suppressive and unable to cling to the past. Koreans had to produce something out of nothing.
How to understand Korean soul ?
Anthropologist Moon is skeptical of generalizing the spirit and soul of Koreans. She says that it is difficult to define the spirit or soul of Koreans or any nationality as a people’s characteristics change throughout history. “You cannot define their traits in one or two words or phrases. Culture is complex, changes over time and has many layers,” she said. People of the ancient kingdom Goguryeo (37BC-668) have been depicted as being having a soaring spirit and being vigorous, courageous and adventurous. In the ensuing Goryeo kingdom(918-1392) and Joseon Dynasty, such depictions disappeared.
The professor added that Japanese created the negative and passive image of Koreans in an attempt to justify their colonization of the Korean Peninsula. They portrayed Koreans as lazy, stupid, superstitious, ignorant and uncivilized. They described Koreans as feminine, sorrow-gripped, affectionate and “Han-oriented,” she said.
The 21st-century Koreans cannot be described as feminine, sorrow-gripped, sentimental or Han-oriented. “Applied to the free-wheeling, creative and dynamic young generation, such descriptions are erroneous,” she said. “The government developed, supported, and popularized `the art of the ruled’ such as the traditional “samulnori” percussion quartet, mask dance and shamanism. They were encouraged as the iconic cultural traits of Korea. Refined and restrained high-class culture was not encouraged. Under such circumstances, not suppressing desire is interpreted to mean self-actualization, freedom and liberation of people.” she said.
The concept of familism underwent significant transformation as Korea entered the modern industrial society where competition is encouraged. It was originally based on Confucian tradition. In today’s Korea, the family seldom functions as a Confucian-based moral unit of society. Inside families, such moral values as filial piety, respect for elders, elders-first rule and distinction between sexes are seldom taught.
“Familism is often abused as a tool to realize private objectives,” she said. “It becomes a hot bed for private greed. Familism sometimes runs counter to or is incompatible with civil society, living-together and virtue of public. Many modern Koreans are less family-oriented than British, French and American peoples,” Moon argues many young Koreans, for instance, do not attach significant meaning to marriage, having and fostering children and becoming parents. The low birthrate, low levels of marriage and late marriages are not attributable to economics. Such problems originate from their changing social and cultural values,” she said.
It is true that leaders cheered, hurried, and encouraged the people for achieving national goals. Koreans created many miracles in a short period. But too much emphasis on attributing these phenomenal success to positive traits and invincible spirit of Koreans may trigger the “risk of ethnic vision.” French philosopher Guy Sorman told The Korea Times.
Regarding the question of characteristics of Korea and Koreans, he said, ``I think Korea's economy improved because it made the right policy. This policy made people very active and dynamic.” He thinks if the policy is applied to another country, ``you will get the same results as well. So, it has to do with the right mixture of polices. I don't think it has to do with national characteristics.”
``For example, he says, some of my friends in South Korea are artists, including movie directors, sculptors and painters. All of them can express themselves because Korea is a democracy. If you compare it with China, for example, there are very few art galleries in China.”
`` It's because the cultural dynamism is related to the kind of freedom the artists need,” he said.
``So, it has nothing to do with any national characteristics. My analysis does not focus on ‘We are what we are, because we are Koreans.’ And I think there is also a risk of ethnic vision in such analysis,” he said.
When all is said and done, Korea always seemed to be in danger of a flash fire. Its history was a continuation of ordeals. Ultimately Koreans surmounted odds. They were strong in crisis. Korea caught two rabbits with one stone _ a thriving economy and dynamic democracy. Koreans made it. Their success story stems from a fine combination of emotionalism and rationality―two kaleidoscopic characters mixed in mind. They once get hot-headed, and then go cool-headed. They act at white heat, they then reason calmly. Guess what awaits them next!
What influenced Koreans?
Shinpparam, literally refreshing wind, is likened to a breeze coming from the valley in the mountains.
When the wind blows, Koreans hum to themselves. They feel joy and a willingness to work. Koreans have vivid memories of feeling fresh and excited when they feel the wind around their face.
Under this mood, workers are ready to work and help others. This is called the cheer-up culture. Korean writer Chung Kyung-mo described the culture as the symbolic subconsciousness of the Koreans. In this wind, they dance joyfully, ready to do anything assigned. This culture had also played a key role in rallying people for national development.
One of the greatest strengths of Koreans was their ability to maintain their independence as a unified single nation on the peninsula for 1,300 years _ from the era of unified Shilla Kingdom until the Japanese occupation in 1910. Even under foreign influence, Koreans preserved their identity. Despite the overwhelming dominance of Chinese civilization, Koreans retained the unique characteristics of their culture. They kept a distinct lifestyle in such things as clothing, food, language and shelter.
Former President Kim Dae-jung referred to this in his book “Prison Writings.” He noted that people sometimes try to link this longevity to the national flower, called Mugunghwa. The name is literally translated into infinite flower. The flower is quite prolific with many buds breaking out in summer.
At the same time, Koreans have proven themselves to be quite capable of assimilating others. In rural villages, southeast Asian women became Koreans after marriage to local men. The government has been active in promoting multicultural society. Although foreigners already account for 2 percent of the total population, there is no racial tension or anti-immigration policy. Many foreigners agree that they can walk the streets at night without worrying about being attacked. Anti-foreign sentiment is strong when Koreans feel their pride is hurt. But the same Koreans show magnanimity for foreigners from the developing Asian countries. There have been cases of harsh treatment by Koreans of foreign workers but generally Koreans generally harbor no hostile attitude toward foreigners.
The Korean national flag is typical of the image, spirit and way of thinking of Koreans. Koreans have been called the “white-clothed people” from ancient times. The national flag’s white background reflects ancient Koreans’ penchant for white. White symbolizes the cleanliness of the people. The national flag was a symbolic rallying point for resistance during the Japanese colonial rule. It symbolizes the fact that Koreans have never invaded the other countries and that Koreans have never bowed to foreign invasion.
Han is not easy to translate into English. It refers to lingering bitterness, hopeless self-resignation. This culture prevailed when Korea was under foreign occupation. Koreans yearned for the day when they were freed from the yoke of Japanese colonial rule. Similarly, Koreans also lived under the influence of Han during the authoritarian regimes of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan when their freedom was suppressed. Korean shamanism and the Pansori style of singing are filled with Han. This culture is the emotional opposite of shinpparam.
For better or worse, the missionaries Korea sends around the world are a true product of the Jeong culture _ kindhearted, sentimental and hoping to help those less fortunate. The Korean word is also difficult to translate in English. It is understood as affection. It is sometimes illogical, irrational and embarrassing to Westerners as its giver is one-sided without expecting anything. It is quite different from love. The sentiment is shared among peers, is given from seniors to juniors, from parents to children. Old Koreans are imbued with Han and Jeong cultures. These subconscious sentiments prevailed when Koreans lived in poverty, under foreign occupation and authoritarian regimes.
Hongik Ingan (Humanitarianism)
This Korean word _ Hongik Ingan _ means benefiting mankind or humanitarianism. This was the founding principle of ancient Korea and is the national motto. Over the past six decades, the country has adopted an inward survival strategy. President Lee Myung-bak initiated a campaign to return the benefit Korea received to the developing countries. Korea joined the OECD donor country club and created a Korean version of the U.S. Peace Corps. This is in line with the nation’s economic power. This is Korea’s commitment to promoting humanitarianism for the welfare of the mankind, especially those in the developing countries or non-G-20 countries.
Who is the writer?
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times. He joined the nation’s first English daily in 1984. He received an MBA from Yonsei University under the title of “Toward the creation of a single currency in the Asia-Pacific region.” The graduate of the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies majored in Japanese. He was the managing editor of the English daily from 2004 till March this year. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org