South and North Korea: Controversy or Culture?


I have always been interested in cultural studies. The extent to which culture affects various aspects of our lives; from business to health, from science to art, etc. is merely inconceivable. Studying diverse languages and cultures I revealed a whole new world for me. 
The article below is my research paper that, I hope, will give you fresh insights on the unique culture of Korea…

In the Eastern Asia, on the Korean Peninsula, coexist two sovereign states; North Korea (DPRK) and South Korea (ROK). Being homogenously populated by native Koreans and having common cultural roots and heritage, these countries have absolutely contrasting economic and political conditions; South Korea is an embodiment of democracy and a role model of socio-economic advancement, whereas North Korea is one of the world’s failed states. Taking into consideration the fact that the nation has been shaped by the same factors, the occurrence of such a controversial situation seems inconceivable. A question arises: Could there be a common cultural characteristic to which both the failure of DPRK and the tremendous success of ROK might be attributed to. Close examination of the historical development of Korea and the impact of various socio-cultural factors shows that, indeed, there might be one.

Korea has a vastly accentuated collectivistic culture. An inherent characteristic of a collectivistic culture is placing family and group goals above individual desires and aims. In contrast to the representatives of individualistic countries, collectivistic nations tend to identify their self-interest with that of their group; nation.  Collectivism is typical for the Eastern Asia. The reason lies underneath the Confucian beliefs that had influenced the advancement of these countries considerably. Confucian thought has been introduced to Korea from China. It became a prevailing belief system in Korea with the arrival of Choseon Dynasty (since 1392) and persists even today.

As a well-structured philosophical system, Confucianism has a number of preaches concerning ethical, political and social norms. Confucianism is centered upon the idea of the Universe and its main elements: Men, Heaven and Earth. Six of its rules are about the art of governance; rectification, doctrine of the mean, rule by virtue, public instruction, consideration of public opinion and promotion of national wealth. Rectification refers to the establishment of certain moral standards; that is, stating several guidelines determining right and wrong. Doctrine of the mean claims that as society is composed of various individuals and groups with diverse preferences, in order to have social harmony, it is vital to preserve equilibrium within individuals and groups. Rule by virtue refers to the importance of achieving moral discipline virtuously. The essence of public instruction is education, which is meant to promote self-discipline and results in the rule of virtue. Public opinion is about the consideration of people’s needs and preferences for the improvement of public policies. Ultimately, promotion of wealth is the idea of the establishment of regulations by the government to foster economic well-being of the country. Briefly analyzing the core Confucian beliefs, it becomes clear that these ideas nurture collectivism; no individually initiated action or opposition.

At first sight, it seems that these value system and mentality cannot contribute to the emergence of democracy, capitalism, and other such phenomena shaped in individualistic cultures around the idea of self-interest. As a matter of fact, these notions have been unknown in collectivistic world for a long time. Most of the countries of Eastern Asia and, particularly, Korea were entirely closed for the rest of the world; they developed in isolation, thus, failed to go beyond certain levels of development However, as a result of several historical events, South Korea changed the reality becoming an icon of a truly democratic state with dynamic economic advancement. Currently numerous progressive individualistic countries try to emulate it.

The historical development of events in Korean Peninsula clearly reflects the fact that the status quo of South Korea has not been reached easily. Going through various wars, colonization, poverty, severe economic depression, etc. Koreans managed to recover and stay united. After the last Choseon Dynasty, Korea has been colonized by Japan for 35 years (1910-1945). Later, after the World War 2, it went through the processes of liberation, partition and occupation by the U.S and Soviet troops. During all these destroying and unravelling events, Korea remained a distinct nation with its unwavering beliefs, value systems, etc.; it showed a behavior inherent to a typical collectivistic culture. However, in 1948 Korea was divided into two states; South and North. One might wonder what happened to the collectivism unifying the nation. The key factor here was the impact of the governing bodies and ideologies. The Northern part of the Peninsula was governed by communists, while the Southern one was under the regulation of the capitalistic U.S and U.N military. Collectivism in this case worked differently; People of the North were jointly brainwashed by the communist leaders, whereas in the South people gathered around the idea of getting out of the severe economic conditions and creating a truly sovereign democratic state. In both cases collectivism was actively present. As a result a Korean War arose destroying the economies of both of the states and deepening animosity between people.

The process of democratization in South Korea took a while. Surely, the role that the aid provided by the U.S and the U.N played cannot be underestimated. However, the establishment of democratic regime in ROK was due to rigorous, joint actions of Koreans. People arranged various strikes and protests, students arranged an enormous upheaval. Finally, Koreans managed to reach highly desired democracy. Unlike in most of the individualist countries, in collectivistic Korea people could put aside self-interest and fight together for a single goal even knowing that the process was going to be bloody and requiring sacrifices. Here the concealed Confucian thought exposed itself; individuals and groups acting together to reach social harmony. This is the key reason democracy and capitalism came to have such remarkable success in South Korea: community-oriented Koreans collectively assimilated and adapted to these notions imported from the Western World, whereas self-oriented individualists themselves, could not implement the core ideas as efficiently.

After the democratization, it was the turn of the economy to recover. The government of ROK, with President Park Chung-hee, created a comprehensive, organized plan of reforms. All the institutions of the country did follow the plan, which was the main reason the pace of economic recovery was unprecedentedly rapid. Even after the Asian crisis of 1997, Korea managed to stabilize its economy much more rapidly than the other states. All the Korean conglomerates (chaebols) willingly sacrificed some of their profits in order to follow the reforms and change the highly leveraged structure of the companies. In this case as well, prevailing collectivism in culture contributed to the rapid rehabilitation.

On the other hand, in the North Korea, the destroying influence of extremist ideas vastly promoted and disseminated in people created paralysis; a brainwashed nation unable to protest, oppose and change their reality. In an individualistic culture this degraded situation would induce aggression among individuals willing to fight for self-interest; better living conditions, freedom of expression, etc. However, in a collectivistic culture like Korea, believing in an ideology that is centered upon hatred and which opposes any aid from the external world, people do not embrace any change; they are too devoted to their prevailing self-reliant Juche ideology.

To sum up, the role of cultural uniqueness in the destiny of a state is irrefutable. Scrutinizing historical events of Korea, a conclusion can be drawn that collectivism might be the cultural characteristic determining both the incredible success of ROK and the failure of DPRK. The influence of the same cultural characteristic varied depending on the external conditions. Under favorable circumstances it did induce prosperity and advancement, as it happened in case of South Korea. Under adverse circumstances, like in North Korea, it caused stagnation and restricted progress.


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