Korea: A Contradictory Country in Search of Global Recognition

Korea: A Contradictory Country in Search of Global Recognition

Nicolas Tenzer

It would be inappropriate to write a travel journal to bring a full understanding of South Korea. Moreover I spent only nine days in Seoul (and was not visiting the other places), which is insufficient to have the pretention to offer a comprehensive picture of Korea and of its destiny. However, through the people I met, the ones I had the chance to have a conversation with you can read here and some others, and also through the many books and papers I read, some keystones have appeared and I may consider that they would bring a more enlightening vision of this, so to say, strange country.

Why strange? This must not be considered as a way to evaluate a country or a people. Strange is a word that aims at describing something that is unclear and somehow contradictory. Some countries, even more undecipherable than Korea for Western eyes, are not as strange in my opinion –let’s take for example China or Japan. Korea is strange because to one characteristic we could immediately add the opposite one. Each element of identity in Korea seems to be twined to its contrary. One statement is immediately balanced by a different one. Of course, this is not necessarily a failure in the world competition and could be considered as an asset as well. De facto, if we consider the amazing progresses made by Korean economic during the last twenty or thirty years, we could assess that contradiction is working! Such a contradictory country as France –we could draw many parallels‑ was probably not as successful in managing them.

We could observe those contradictions as well when discussing with the people. They are proud and anxious, self-confident and self-criticizing, wonderfully kind and impatient with their compatriots, open to the modern world and still having their mind enshrined in Confucian traditions. Not just the society offers contradiction but each individual.

Of course, I could add that I like this country, enjoying being there, feeling well in Seoul and walking there –this was probably not easily understandable for some Korean friends!‑, appreciating the subway as well as the restaurants, the magic of its parks and the majesty of its river. This wouldn’t be worth mentioning if this subjective feeling was not also something that Korea is able to create when confronting the world: the capacity to be loved as a peaceful, hard-working, efficient and open country. How true it could be, we also have to bring an opposite image when studying the very concrete elements of Korean politics.


Foreign Policy: A Potential Highly at Risk

Korea is at the crossroads both geographically and historically. This makes its frailty and the uncertainty of its near future. Paradoxically, this crossroads is also a land’s end. Considered as a whole, Korea is a virtual bridge to Eurasia ‑that is continental Asia and Europe as well. It is the linkage to the sea for China, Russia, Mongolia and a natural road as well as a suitable harbor. At the same time, as we sufficiently know, this potential does not exist, since South Korea is closed in its North and North Korea has the access to the Eurasian world, but it cannot exploit it because of the weakness of its economy –without mentioning the other factors. The North kingdom has geopolitically only borders. It is completely land-locked.

Some could say that it could be astonishing to start with the fiction-like consideration of Korea as a whole. It seems that it has no consistency; even less than a unified Germany could have in the 60s. Of course, I immediately said that it was in the same time blocked by the reality that divides the peninsula more than it ever was. For the time being, mentioning any confidence when analyzing what happens in North would be as hopeless that we should have been assessing 10 years ago the evolution of the Syrian regime. However –this was for me the major surprise during my talks in Seoul‑, everyone is talking about the unification, whatever may be the time it takes and the process it goes along. Of course, all the people are very cautious, but it was their natural horizon and they trust it, never abandoning it to the realm of impossibility. They are always trying to give consistence to their dreams and to bring together was has been separated by history and war. Of course, there are some reasons to push forward the idea. One of them is the true conscience that this would make Korean economy world-leading and not only or merely innovative. It would provide it with a territorial base. But there is as well the belief that it is part of Korean destiny to have again access to its original dimension, repairing as well the wounded hearts of separated families. This is more than an economic Of course, one often assesses that this obsession is less pervasive amongst the young generation. War’s memory is progressively vanishing and the family links have swollen out. The factual observation that the two Koreas are still officially at war doesn’t seem to have a concrete impact on daily life. Most of the well-educated young Koreans are now looking at the external world and the less-educating are mostly fighting to find a place in Korean society. Everyone knows as well that unification’s burden would be so high that it could generate severe troubles in domestic economy. It remains that no one would refuse to move forward toward this direction if they have an opportunity to do it and that patriotic feeling is so deeply enrooted in Korean mind that unification would be considered as an obvious achievement everyone has to work for. However, what unification really means is still a disputable question. Many experts observe that an economic unification could become something concrete if there are some positive changes in the North Korean regime: there could be more exchanges of goods and workers and a perestroika in North Korea –even still unlikely in a short term period‑ could authorize more capital flows from Western origin to pour into Pyongyang. If the two economies become more imbricate, although if the South would never be dependent from the North, there would be less opportunity for a return to status quo ante, which means North Korea’s quasi-autarchy. Political unification would be of course a very long term perspective, which would implicate a radical swift in the regime that the North Korean elite have obviously no interest to right now.

The relationships with China are obviously a big deal. Of course, Beijing is part of the solution in the evolution of the North Korean regime, even if there are few certainties about how China is really influential in this respect. But there could be a lot of positive consequences for China brought by Pyongyang’s more cooperative behavior: access to the road to South Korea’s harbor, opening up of North Korea’s bordering provinces, broader market for Chinese products, lowering of the burden of assistance to North Korea, diminishing of the geopolitical instability and foreseeable phased withdrawal of the US troops based in South Korea. There is no such hostility towards China that there could be with Japan mostly for historical reasons. I even heard that, if Korean people would really have to choose between the US and China, they could probably choose the latter. Nonetheless, the most critical point is South Korea’s heavy economic dependence to China –the reverse is true as well, but with less political consequences. As its first trade partner, Seoul relies on Beijing for its trade and China’s slowdown as well as political pressures could harm the Korean economy. But, even if South Korea’s trade addiction is often depicted as a real issue, interdependence with China doesn’t seem to be really perceived as a treat since it expresses at first a sort of community of destiny.

The US is evidently South Korea’s trustable ally and Seoul needs the US as a key element of deterrence. The US troops based in Korea and the military agreement that subjugates Korean army to the US commander in case of conflict are not really opposed by the majority of Korean people. Even if Seoul has not the same concern than other Asian countries and is not focused on rebalancing China, the US alliance is not really questionable. The key problem is the rivalry between Japan and South Korea, the two main US allies in the region. Washington seems not able to really alleviate the tensions and Seoul could be tempted to bring some support to Beijing in its quarrel with Tokyo. Probably it also needs more reinsurance from the White House in order to assess how really trustable the alliance could be in case of major conflict with North Korea. Beijing is obviously conscious of this ambiguous situation and could be disposed to give pledges to its good faith.

This tactical game is not a strategy, but motivated by a vital concern for security. It offers few indications on Seoul’s grand strategy, if there is any. For Korean experts and officials, it is certainly hard to conceive it since a divided Korea could probably not build a comprehensive one. It is not mostly due to its size –Singapore has such a strategy‑ but to geographical position and psychological bridles, like if South Korea is not yet a fully-fledged country. It may be partly the result of its own economic achievements: during 30 years and still now, Korea is primarily working at gaining its position amongst the most developed nations. Somehow, economic success could be difficult to match with political power. There could be contradictions when trying to address the two goals simultaneously and the one could jeopardize the other. South Korea’s legacy is also linked to peacefulness more than to conquest and claim for power. We could assess paradoxically that Seoul has no regional ambitions, security excepted, but worldwide purposes that are gradually becoming more evident even if the final goal remains probably unclear. South Korea was proud to host the G20 summit in 2010 and is paying more attention to Official Development Aid (ODA), not only for business purposes but because it is part of its forthcoming status. The same is true for Korean culture, officially praised as an element of its “soft power”. But it is as well not merely related to economic purposes. More than as a regional or big power, South Korea probably just aims at being recognized as a smart nation, having to bring nice ideas to the world. On a wide sense, this cultural pride could be one of its major goals.


Economics: How to Share the Prosperity?

This pride is legitimately vibrant in most of the Korean people’s discourses on the economy. One often reminds us how critical its situation was in the 1960s and 1970s. No country has ever made such leap forward! The global picture has been often drawn: continuous growth, major innovation, world-class companies, competitiveness on the external markets, etc. This goes along with the opening of the country, huge potential in R&D, top-ranked universities, comparatively clean environment. Of course, we must as well look at the other face of the coin: remaining inequalities, also for the higher and superior education, relatively low domestic demand, social dissatisfaction and dual economy in terms of competitiveness, wages, and exposure to the external markets.

Two elements explain simultaneously South Korea’s major economic successes and foreseeable limits for the future. The first one is Korea’s foreign trade dependency: its economy was boosted by external demand and foreign trade has been itself based on high added-value products developed on a world-wide scale, like cars, electronics items, and now also green economy products. Korea appears as a true Japan competitor in some very competitive sectors. The well-known chaebols had the financial resources and the size to invest massively on innovation, development, advertisement and commercial networks. They attract the best manpower in Korea and offer them social advantages in order to keep them at board. On the other hand, a foreign trade based economy is a source of likely imbalances, in terms either of consumption –since it is based on duality‑ and vulnerability if durable slowdown of world economy occurs.

The second factor is the very low tax rates for business as for individuals. It contributes to economic jump start, entrepreneurship and mobility of people and industries. In a way, this sort of free economy brought the proof of its contribution to prosperity. The collected money by the state and local authorities was certainly enough, up to now, in a time of quick growth, to insure the needed investments in roads, transport, public universities, and cities management. But this policy may now meet some limits in terms of social welfare, fight against the inequalities, especially in schools, private funding of education, support to the women in a country where fertility rate is a major coming threat. However, the current state of the economy may allow some slightly rise of taxes without jeopardizing the economic Korean model.

The question of inequalities has now become a vibrant issue, insufficiently addressed by the social-democrat Democratic Party, but which is now part of the conservative Saenuri Party’s agenda whose leaders perfectly know they have to cope with. Not only the inequities could severely damage, in case of an economic downturn, part of the brilliant economic successes, but they may impact as well the social stability and still fragile consensus. Of course, inequalities are a multi-dimensional issue: it includes poverty and social distress as well as a comparative assessment of one’s situation, which is not always linked to material wealth. As a whole, this question has to do with dualism, in the wages, the access to good schools and universities, in the differentiation between Seoul and the rest of the country, the retirement conditions, the access to common goods – and the self-appreciation.

This question is at the crossroad of many different aspects. Of course, we could elaborate on the economic dimension: how to raise taxes –a true commitment for who is ambitioning to develop the welfare state‑ without diminishing the competitiveness and the possible development of domestic market? However, it does not seem to be the most problematic. The real question is all about the very nature of the Korean society.


Towards a Normal Society?

Who is considering Korea is certainly very astonished by three different things that we shall consider altogether. First of all, it seems to be a “normal” society in terms of social, cultural and ideological passions. It is very easy to depict the Korean people as having simple manners and behaviors, somehow having probably more things in common with Westerners than Japanese or Chinese. But for who is trying to understand up to what point the historical legacy remains influential, it is obvious that it is far for being ineffective and neutral in terms of political and social behavior and that it still governs the relationships between the political forces. Lastly, which is both a strength and a weakness, the domestic social consensus has never been a real purpose for an outward looking country, or it solely for this purpose. Growth and moving forward seem to have been the real keystones of Korean community during the last three or four decades, but the motion in itself cannot be a substitute to a more substantial definition of the common purpose.

This dimension of normality certainly characterizes most of the Korean people. They are simple, direct, friendly, not embedded in some kinds of protocol that some Japanese people have, sometimes giving the impression to their Western counterpart that they must be careful not to say some things and to behave accordingly to their tradition. The Japanese seem to have their consciousness always enshrined in a very complex network of legacies and cultural values, even if it is not really the case, especially for the younger generation. Even if Korea has its own very important traditions and strong Confucian beliefs, it seems to have less deeply enrooted codes of conduct and etiquette. Its openness to the world makes certainly this even truer when it comes about relationships with foreigners. They have to feel well, equal and confident. Korean people express neither fake humility nor condescendence. They are always polite and never obsequious. They seem to have the sense of equality and are not prompt to make a case for social distinctions based on history and family links, which of course doesn’t mean that there are no such distinctions created by wealth and power. I had the feeling of an egalitarian society in which the concrete social divides are growing up. However this kindness and this normality must not dissimulate how deep, even if underlying, are the historical forces that gnaw at the Korean society.

Three historical legacies are shaping the Korean consciousness. The first one is certainly the separation between the two Koreas, which by itself, as already said, creates a perpetual dissatisfaction toward the present situation and a pressure to achieve an historical goal. Nonetheless, we can wonder how much it really nurtures the social behavior. It obviously impacts by behind the global purpose of Korea as a nation, but probably not really more. We could say that it may have an impact a contrario: let’s imagine that Korea will, one day, really move towards unification, then it will shape a new South Korea’s society mindset, leaving aside the other social motives of dissatisfaction. The second legacy is certainly Japan’s colonization and war-time. Of course, the most apparent dimension is the dispute about war’s still vibrant memory –namely comfort women. It makes also very sensitive the discontents about the disputed islands. But, this historical legacy, brought by Japan’s colonization, is not limited to factual stories. It has a major impact on how South Korea is defining itself, creating a voluntary differentiation from what Japan represents and at the same time a rivalry committed to use other means to succeed. The third element of historical legacy is based on Korea’s own dark pages. There are obviously three sorts of bloody memories: one is about a form of civil war, one is looking at external aggression, but the third one is directly linked to own Korea’s sins. They are certainly the most crucial and embarrassing and probably the most difficult to cope with whereas they are more determinant for one’s social consciousness. Of course, they are based on dictatorship period that carried slaughters, political oppression, and deep political divide. Another form is Korea’s participation in Vietnam War, probably less pervasive in public debate, but on a minor form, it has also a lot to do with the deep criticisms of the contemporary political life.

This could probably explain, at least up to a certain point, the present dissatisfaction with politics, which is obviously not a South Korean peculiarity, but also the difficulty to express something like a broader consensus on domestic goals, which was not at the agenda for the last three decades. If we leave apart the question of economic growth and competition, the main target was certainly to set up democratic institutions and practices. Even if not everyone is talking about, any adult who is 40 or over has a clear remembrance of dictatorship, but also of violent protests against it, going far beyond the sole purpose of its overthrow. He or she knows how violent the country could be, even in Parliament’s arena. He or she is thus reluctant to bring up sensitive questions about the likeable consensus in the country. The political class is depicted as poor, inefficient and too often corrupted, even if it has improved. The Sewol wreck has disclosed huge demands for another society where this avoidable tragedy could have been scarcely possible. But everything happens as if Korean society was still hesitating and reluctant to have a political debate about its very principles. It may not have the mindset for, but it could be as well too risky a game.

Korean society’s ambiguousness stays there: it is both a very ideological society –because of its history‑ and a highly pragmatic community; it has very strong expectations, hopes and determination concerning its future, and is still hesitating about its future values; it has very friendly, unaffected and generous citizen and quite each individual seems to fret about his or her destiny and the relationships with the society and the group; Korean people act as if they were self-confident about their destiny and are mostly ready to work without an end, but they are at the same time more than ever anxious about themselves, and about their future; even if anxious about North Korea’s threat, they are less concerned by geopolitical turmoil than most of their neighbors, but everything shows that their own capacity to live peacefully and to be reassured is linked to their geopolitical future in the coming world –which still put the reunification at the top of the agenda.


Brilliance and Uncertainties

We cannot predict how brilliant Korean economy will stay in the coming decades. We just know that it is now and that there is no reason for it not to develop its assets in the years to come. But talking about brilliance is not a way to designate only a highly competitive open economy, but also the society itself and its culture. We already evoke the other side of the coin, but the global picture is obviously one of the smartest in the world.

So what could corrode this elegant picture and how can it get rusty? One often points out the spectacular rate of suicides amongst the youth, the poor fertility rate, the dualism of the industrial sector, the geographical disequilibrium between Seoul’s area and the rest of the country, the growing unemployment rate of graduate students, the social discrepancies and up to a point distrust, the bureaucracy of the big chaebols that could damage their competitiveness in the future, the lack of competences of the political ruling class, etc. All those elements could truly jeopardize Korea’s economic future. We could as well raise a question about the future derived from the past and relevant comparisons with other countries: South Korea could be at a high peak of an economic cycle, due to the necessity and the constant willingness to catch up with other developed countries. Now each new progress –even if what happened was a true miracle‑ could be slower and more difficult. In a few years, Korean economy could become “matured” and face new crises, in particular if an external chock occurs that would limit further exports. This is true as well.

However, there could be deeper threats. There were a lot of discussions about the real meaning of the catch-word “creative economy” launched by President Park Geun-hye. Whatever it could be, it expresses a real challenge: how to make Korean people, especially the graduates from the best universities, showing their creativity by thinking out of the box, whereas all the system, from the best universities to the big companies, is based on conformism, working hard, complying to the norms and accepting the system’s requirements? Of course, Samsung and others are amazing successes, showing the ability to innovate in technology, and many Korean cars show how they are able to meet the expectations of the customers all throughout the world, which means as well mindset flexibility, observation skills, reactivity, etc. However, South Korea doesn’t know things like Apple, Facebook or Twitter. There are only a few start-ups in the communication and information economy and there were never science Nobel Prize winners in South Korea.

The main challenges for Korea are thus to “free” Korean society and to introduce more “hazards” in the system, especially the educational system, without damaging its quality. The most important is to completely change the criteria that measure the performance of an individual, especially a student. Its capacity to think by oneself, to be able to make free comments about a piece of art, a philosophical essay or an historical document is more important than the ability to memorize a large amount of data and to conform to what one is expecting. Of course, people must continue to work hard, but differently. If that happens, it could show that Korean society is now mature enough for confronting with itself and feels no more need to be reassured through conformism and pre-set requirements. Art is still showing this ability to deal with liberty; it must now pour into the economic and institutional system.