Can We Ever Understand Korea?
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
In 1989, I published my first book on Korea, ``MARCHING ORDERS,'' Greenwood Press, in which I said of Korea: ``The military men who took over the country in a junta in 1961 and gave their fellow citizens marching orders were no less than founders of a totally new society....Just now, it is Korea's finest hour and its drama is still being played out….''
Observing the National Assembly and Ssangyong Motors, in which law and outlaw routinely clash with great desperation, and hearing the report that half a dozen bodies of those who died in the Yongsan urban-development scuffle earlier this year are being held hostage by the protesters, I am beginning to think the ``finest hour'' is over and the ``drama'' of Korea's brilliant economic miracle is losing its dramatic flair.
Those who used hope that Korea, through its economic and cultural development, would join the ranks of the advanced nations with a more rational and global view of life, are wondering: Can we really understand Korea and Koreans?
I am now of the opinion that my earlier description of post-1971 Korea as ``a totally new society'' was justified only for its economic transformation. In its culture and character, I have long since concluded, Korea has hardly changed.
It remains just as nationalistic, emotional, and non-rational as it was prior to the great 1961-71 economic watershed. What emerges from this is the description of a society that is economically modern but sociologically pre-modern, with all the strange and incomprehensible cultural clashes that are natural to such an historic mismatch.
Those who want to know about Korea, beware: You are about to encounter the strangest culture and people you probably have ever known, read about or faced. Korea, the ``strangest?'' Let's try to clarify the term ``strange.''
When we travel to a country we are not familiar with, let's say, to Nepal, Nigeria, or Japan, we find many things strange in these places. The way they do things in these countries is strange, indeed. But this ``strangeness'' is what makes visiting Nepal, Nigeria or Japan ``interesting.'' Things in these cultures and people are strange and this is precisely what makes traveling there worth doing.
When we say Korea is strange, it is a different kind of strangeness. Korea's strangeness is related to ``incomprehensible,'' not necessarily to interesting.
Cultures like Nepal, Nigeria, and Japan, and many more, are different-strange to Americans and Westerners but interesting. Korea's strangeness, on the other hand, means it is very difficult, if not impossible, to understand Korean culture or people.
True, to some, Korea can be strange and interesting. But, in the view of most reasonable observers, including mine, Korea's strangeness leads us more to incomprehensible than to interesting. Incomprehensible encourages frustration and exasperation. Interesting stirs the mind to study and enjoy the object of interest.
Get a quick glimpse of Korea in these per capita statistics: Korea leads the world in suicide; in alcohol consumption; in plastic surgery; in traffic deaths; in cigarette smoking; in divorce-rate climb in the past 10 years; in gasoline consumption; in dog-meat consumption; in cellular phones per capita; in broadband Internet connections; in the ``isolation index'' among all Asian immigrants in America; in English-education expenditure per capita….
Still, out of the rubbles of strangeness and incomprehensibility, some basic conclusions about Korea can be stated as follows as a reiteration of my previous observations. I would call them the ``5 Things That Define Korea'':
1. KOREA IS A TRIBAL SOCIETY: Tribalism, as it is used here to describe Korea's brand of nation-based ideology, predates the nation-state concept. In fact, Korea is not quite at the stage of modern nation-state in the way its behavioral guidance is still shaped by its inner factors, such as tradition, kinship and shamanistic beliefs.
In short, Korea is still a society made up of tribal consciousness, where bloodlines, language, subconscious and unconscious are interwoven to form the basis of its daily thoughts and actions.
Along with Korea, we may name Serbs, Greeks, Russian peasants, American Indians, Kurds, Gypsies, Armenians, most Arabs, among others, as having variously displayed behavior traits largely based on tribalism and tribalistic characteristics.
First and last, all Koreans are identified among themselves by their ``Korean-ness'' ― the accidental nature of having shared their ethnic commonality ― not by another achieved factor such as education, class, universal humanity and morality, or rational agreement on ideas or philosophies. Being Korean overrides all other considerations. This Korean tribalism, different from nationalism (although they are often used interchangeably), is what most Americans notice when they first encounter Korea.
2. LINGUISTIC EXCLUSIVENESS SHIELDS KOREA: What makes the Korean brand of tribalism possible is their language. In their national language of communication and consciousness, more uniquely Korean than any other cultural factors, most Koreans find it impossible to think objectively or rationally about themselves or others outside their society.
The Korean language makes it impossible for them to think outside that linguistic-cultural orbit. The language is not just a tool of communication for Koreans. It is the subconscious, even unconscious, chain that binds Korea's hearts and minds and souls.
Once you acquire the language as a native, you can never escape that orbit. This may not be wholly unique to Korea, as other old tribal societies with their uniquely tribalistic language systems are often characterized by this exclusiveness. Still, the degree and intensity of this exclusiveness, tied to their linguistic heritage, is quite remarkable for Korea.
3. KOREA BELIEVES IN ITS SPECIALNESS: True, every society, in its myth-making and tribal lore, feels special in some ways. But for Korea, this specialness is also one of its defining characteristics. In the deepest core of their emotional and tribalistic being, Koreans cannot and will not accept any outside critique of their culture and personality. Koreans cannot think objectively about themselves, their culture, or their place in the world.
Ignoring the surface sophistication of foreign cultural imports, such as fashion, which they freely imitate from other cultures, they are forever locked into the mode of thinking ― and conviction ― that Korea is infallible, unique and destined for greatness. Even surpassing the Arabs and Central European nationalists in their intensity of passion and messianic conception, Koreans are nothing if they are not convinced of this providential endowment of specialness and uniqueness.
4. KOREA IS IMPENETRABLE TO WESTERNERS: Corollary to the above, Koreans will never change their core beliefs and habits of mind, no matter what. They are already famous for rejecting anything they regard as a criticism toward Korea, even if made in a friendly manner.
In spite of the easy adoptions of technical or fashionable artifacts from other cultures, mostly from the U.S., Japan and Europe, Koreans are constitutionally incapable of change on the deepest level of their existence and consciousness. Americans are easily lulled, by the numerous signs of Americanization or Westernization ― witness McDonald's, automobiles, high fashion, trips abroad ― to think that Koreans are or can be just like them. They are soon surprised and frustrated to discover that, at the core, Koreans are impenetrable and immune to change.
5. KOREA IS CONSTANTLY IN CONFLICT WITHIN ITSELF: Because of such a state of existence and consciousness, Korean society remains in a constant state of conflict: Between the pressure from globalization and internationalization that demands rationality and Westernization, on the one hand, and the impenetrable and unchangeable core of Korean-ness that is primeval and blood-thick, on the other. Nothing illustrates this confusion and conflict more dramatically than college students who shout anti-American slogans during the day but dream of going to America to study or to live after the shouts have died down.
Even during the height of anti-American protests, a survey of Korean college students showed that a majority preferred ``American citizenship'' to their own Korean nationality. Among themselves, they are the noisiest, most quarrelsome, and most disagreeable people on earth, surely surpassing the Jews whose argumentativeness is world-famous.
Individually, Koreans are some of the most self-diffident, friendliest and generous people on earth. Few nationalities take strangers into their midst and hearts as readily as individual Koreans do.
As a tribe, more than as a modern nation, however, Koreans change their character dramatically. Together as a ``Korean Tribe,'' they are as unreasonable, irrational and rude as they are sweet and generous as individuals. What confounds foreigners, especially Americans because of their basically guileless approach to the world, more than anything, is this confusing personality of Koreans as a tribe and as individuals.
Back to the original question: Can we ever understand Korea? Possibly, if we imprint the five things mentioned above as our mantra.
Jon Huer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.