Posted : 2009-03-22 20:27
Updated : 2009-03-22 20:27

Psychology of Korean Han

By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist

Sooner or later, most foreigners learn something about ``han," the peculiar cultural product that explains much of ``Korean-ness," especially as the source of its emotional component.

Sometimes called ``won-han" (a deeper han), it is lodged in the deepest recesses of the Korean psyche that shapes, justifies, and explains all that is considered the ``Korean mind."

If a foreigner is somewhat puzzled at certain Korean behavior, both nationally and personally, both historically and immediately, both in international relations and in personal interactions, this han-factor can provide insights and answers.

Generally speaking, han (or won-han) is the idea that some injustice has been done to oneself. The injustice could be inflicted on the Korean people by a foreign power, on employees by their employer, on citizens by their government, on a daughter-in-law by her mother-in-law, on a wife by her husband, on a poor person by his rich neighbor ― anything that is perpetrated on a person or a group that is permanently imprinted as injustice or unfairness.

Injustice being more common than justice and unfairness more than reasonableness in the world and in human history, this sort of grievance can be found almost anywhere among humanity. But its reckoning in Korea is peculiar in its intensity and in its grief, as if some heavenly edict has descended on the han-inflicted person, group, or nation beyond human tolerance.

Most decisively, the above historical-economic-political-cultural factors find a receptive crucible that is uniquely Korean in han.

To put it in another way, han is an anthropological concept that operates on so many levels of Korea ― from the highest historical-national level to the innermost-psychic feelings of the person.

In short, it is the sense of having been ``wronged'' by a superior agent. Naturally, the agent varies. Sometimes it is fate and fortune, sometimes it is the government, sometimes it is business, sometimes it is family roles, that exercise ``unjust'' power upon oneself.

Virtually all of Korea's institutions and persons are under the powerful influence of han. Virtually all of Koreans have a deep-seated sense of grief and grievance that they have been wronged by some very powerful agents of injustice.

Any foreigner who wishes to understand Korea must begin with understanding what this han is and what it means to the Korean heart. Without it, one's understanding of Korea is wholly inadequate.

Because of this han, much of the human-social relations in Korea consist of pleading, begging, and lamenting, all to right past Han or to express present han. From politics to family, from international relations to television dramas, han plays an unforgettable role in the makeup of how Koreans feel and act toward one another and toward other nations. Korea will forgive even the gravest sins, kill even for the smallest slights, or lament endlessly over a past han that one has endured or was subjected to, all depending on the shifting reminders of han.

All the unpredictable and, to most Americans, very incomprehensible emotional outbursts among many Koreans, from high officials to men on the street, have to do with the workings of han at the moment. One might say all observable actions of Korea are the results of their han factors unobserved below the surface.

But this is peculiarly and uniquely distinct for Korea, different from other grievances of humanity. It is the intensity with which this is carried in each person's heart and the length at which this is remembered in their collective mind that makes it so utterly ``Korean.''

Even the smallest slight is added and preserved in the national and individual storage of han.

Considering the long history of Korea's suffering at the hands of foreign invaders, in excruciating poverty, and at the arena of international indifference, the total accumulated han in Korea is enormous in size and intensity. Any of this accumulated and self-multiplied injustice can trigger the Korean heart to display an incredibly intense outburst of feelings and actions.

Whenever several Koreans gather and talk, it is likely that the participants take turns to retell their own han, the tales of injustice and woes inflicted on them. It is this intensity and dominance of han in the Korean heart that often startles the foreigner, who finds this Han-based national character the most distinct and disturbing aspect of Korea.

It is this han, also, that makes political, economic and cultural compromises difficult to achieve here. Each group, especially the underclass, such as labor unions, swears that they oppose this or that with their ``death,'' whether it is a routine labor strike, opposing a government plan to build a crematorium in their neighborhood, or deciding on a waste disposal site. It is almost always: ``We oppose this or whatever with our death!''

How Korea may achieve the rank of first-rate nation, where compromise and rationality are the hallmark of international behavior, may be most sorely tested by their nemesis ― the han.

Sociologically speaking, han may be defined as ironies unresolved. In advanced societies, typically in the United States, few han are without established channels for resolution. If one is mad at the telephone company, for example, one is directed to the Better Business Bureau. If one is unhappy with one's marriage, divorce is always an option.

If one is dissatisfied about life in general, one can change jobs, move to another State, go back to college, or sue somebody.

All these ``solutions'' are superficial ones, of course. But advanced societies, like the United States, make superficiality a virtue, so that every source of human conflict does not end up in the bitterest of confrontations.

In the United States, a typically superficial but orderly society, all conflicts have their rationalized solutions. It would be extremely rare to see an American seething with han of one kind or another.

As to something that a foreigner can observe, one of the most dramatic, heart-rending, and weird observations of this han is the way Koreans wail at funerals and when they meet their long-separated relatives.

The scene is repeated over and over on Korean television and some of it filters out to the rest of the world. It is indeed difficult not to sympathize with the Koreans when they express their feelings toward seemingly unjust deaths, or seeing their long-separated blood relatives.

But to the Westerner, this scene of uncontrollable wailing in a ``sea of tears,'' as the Korean media describes it, is the human melodrama at its most melodramatic and incomprehensible.

They ask: How is this much intensity in human emotion possible at all? While there is nothing obviously wrong with extreme emotionalism and wailing in a sea of tears when human events warrant it, this sort of extremism seems peculiar to Korea. This alone encourages the view among advanced foreigners that Korea is a ``strange'' country. This idea of ``strangeness'' easily turns into the idea of ``weirdness'' or even ``backwardness.'' If civilization means the controlling of one's emotional state, among other things, it is easy to wish that Koreans might reconsider moderating such extreme emotionalism broadcast all over the world.

The opinions expressed and the observations described in these articles are strictly the writer’s own and do not represent any official position of the University of Maryland University College or the USFK.
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