Korea: The Impossible Country
Just a few weekends ago, my dancing skills were put to the test by an equally enthusiastic and talented dancer, my eight-year-old cousin, Chapman. (You can check out his seriously cool moves in this Youtube video.) In the midnight house party that ensued, we started dancing on the kitchen island counter to “Gangam Style” on repeat. (Yes… I am an epic baby sitter.)
Now, I recognize that probably quite a few of my readers have no idea what “Gangam Style” is. If this personally be the case for you, you are in for a treat in my explanation of pop culture. (Recognizing that I might identity myself as a nerd, I will admit that I had not heard of “Gangam Style” until it was used as an example in one of my economics classes.) “Gangam Style” is a rap/pop song that was released in July 2012 by a South Korean singer, known as Psy. The song is completely in Korean, except for in a section of the chorus, when Psy sings: “Hey, sexy lady!” It entered into public consciousness not only through its plays on Top 40 radio stations in the United States, but also through its music video – which went viral on Youtube due to Psy’s bizarre dancing. It became the first video on Youtube to reach over 1 billion views and currently stands at 1.77 billion views.
I mention Psy and “Gangam Style” only as the introduction into the book I read about South Korea, Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor. When searching for a book about this country, I faced a distinct challenge in the fact that I could choose a plethora of books focusing on a plethora of subjects: a political emphasis about the Korean War and North Korean relations; an economic emphasis about the rise of South Korea companies like Hyundai or Kia; or a cultural emphasis about the foreign forces at play in South Korean society. I chose this particular book because it seemed like a book that it would offer a brief overview into all of these aspects. (However, I will mention I was a bit disappointed when I received the book and it did not have a bibliography or endnotes section.) Written by the Korea Correspondent for The Economist, this book is divided into five sections, each of which tackles a different aspect of Korean culture.
- Part 1: Foundations In this section, the author did something quite unusual: he discussed the philosophies, schools of thought, and religions which have had significant influence over Korea in the course of its history. The author cites these chapters when discussing the modern aspects of Korean culture today later in the book. Although there are chapters dedicated to shamanism in early Korean history and the introduction of capitalism and democracy in recent history, I found the most interesting chapters to be those based on Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. Buddhism, which was not accepted in Korea in full force until the Koryo dynasty of the tenth century, has had significant impact on modern society: “In Buddhism, one can escape one’s karma through enlightenment… Koreans constantly seek to improve themselves and ameliorate their condition. Study doesn’t stop with a college degree” (page 41.) Confucianism, which is based upon hierarchy, has likewise had significant impact in the formal structures of the Korean language, the quest of the Korean people for higher education, as well as “the country’s hierarchical corporate culture” (page 50.) I was personally surprised to learn of the popularity of the Christian faith in Korea – a country which was never colonized by a European power. Christianity is the country’s most popular religion (excluding those with no beliefs), with 31.6% of all South Koreans identifying with the faith, according to the World Factbook.
- Part 2: Cultural Codes This section focuses on different phenomena that exist in modern Korea today and how they manifest themselves. The one that most caught my attention was chemyon, which the author translates to “face” and describes as “a product of Confucianism. Under Confucianism, conforming to society’s expectations… the perception of others that one did not meet expectation was grounds for deep shame – a loss of face.” (page 112.) This has manifested itself in a variety of ways, not least of all in the luxury goods industry: “Despite the global economic downturn, South Korea saw a 16.7 percent increase in luxury good sales between 2008 and 2009” (page 114.) As a side note, I will mention that in a more recent study conducted in 20o1, it was noted that the South Korean luxury market grew by over 12.5 percent every year since 2006.
- Part 3: Hyun-Shil: Cold Reality This section descries South Korea through the lens of a young person – in particular, the cultural, political, and economic challenges which exist for the younger generation in this country. It begins by describing the generation in relation to the Korean conflict. The young generation has never known conflict or war, and they were in fact shocked by the 2010 North Korean bombing of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. Other challenges described include the lack of freedom in the mainstream media, as well as the hierarchal structure of most businesses. I found the chapter entitled “English Mania” of most interest, in which the competition for well-paying jobs is started when children are still young through English language immersion environments and schools. Back to “Gangam Style”, the author describes gangam in this chapter as “a symbol for the excesses of modern South Korea. It is the center not only of English mania but also of competitiveness, not to mention conspicuous consumption… [it] contains 70 percent of Seoul’s plastic surgery clinics but only 5.5 percent of its population” (page 207.)
- Part 4: In the Hours Not Spent Working This section interested me very little – as it went into the Korean culinary culture and pop culture. To be honest, I believe the only way to gain insights into these aspects of a culture is not through reading, but rather, through experience.
- Part 5: More of “Us,” Less of “Them” This section was very interesting in the fact that it discussed the Korean national identity, the global forces which have impacted it, and how this identity is continuing to develop. South Korea has definitely been influenced by its history of colonization by imperial Japan before World War II and later by the United States influence following the Korean War. However, perhaps what has had the greatest influence in regard to international forces at play within Korean society has been Korea’s rise to affluence. “The number of foreigners living in this country as soared, reaching 1.4 million, a figure that would have been unimaginable even at the turn of the millennium” (page 269.)
Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!