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Why is Korea accident-prone?

Publication Date : 08-05-2014


The Sewol ferry disaster has brought the whole country into a pandemonium as well as a grand debate on the causes and remedies of manmade disasters. The insatiable materialistic drive of the business world, the highly incompetent and irresponsible government agencies, the immoral and illegal behaviour of the crew, and the irrational and immoral behaviour and rumour-mongering of some people have been most frequently mentioned as the major causes of the incident. For disaster prevention, on the other hand, the reorganisation of the government agencies in charge of disaster control, the eradication of mammonist culture prevalent in society, and strengthening of the laws punishing those responsible for disasters and rumour-mongering have been suggested as measures for remedy.

Now is the time to reopen a national debate on the fundamental causes of manmade disasters in Korea. The culture that Korean people themselves have created since independence is basically responsible for inconceivable big accidents.

South Korea after independence from Japanese colonial rule adopted the Western democratic-capitalist system, which is the product of Western civilisation, and has pursued modernisation vigorously. The Korean people were too preoccupied with rapid modernisation to reflect upon the impact of modernisation and Western civilisation on traditional Korean culture.

In concrete terms, they did not discuss seriously the relationship between modernisation and Western civilisation on the one hand and that between Korean culture and modernisation and Western civilisation on the other. The West was able to achieve modernisation earlier than the non-West mainly because its civilisation provided the driving force of modernisation. The values, norms and behavioural patterns of the West including individualism (individual rights and property), work ethic, the rule of law, rationalism, challenge to nature, and separation of spiritual and temporal authority are all favourable to rapid industrialisation and commercialisation. In contrast, those of Korean culture such as authoritarianism (or collectivism), irrationalism (or emotionalism), fatalism, lack of work ethic, and favouritism are detrimental to modernisation.

The successive Korean governments have made strenuous efforts to eradicate those traditional cultural elements that are detrimental to modernisation and to promote those Western values, norms and behavioural patterns that are favourable to modernisation. But they have not been so successful.

First, culture is formed over several centuries. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to transform traditional culture into modern culture in a short period. Second, the main benefit of modernisation is material wealth, which entails conspicuous consumption and lust for wealth. The governments have mainly focused on the Western values and behavioural norms that are likely to promote modernisation, mainly rapid economic development, rather than Western moral standards. Moreover, common people have been seduced almost instantly into materialistic lust and have become egoistic and self-indulgent, misinterpreting or misusing individualism as unlimited freedom or egoism while ignoring Western moral values and beliefs such as work ethic and the rule of law. Because of this trend, as modernisation has proceeded rapidly, the materialistic aspect of Western civilisation has strengthened and undermined traditional Korean culture, particularly the Confucian moral codes.

In concrete terms, the Korean people reject authoritarianism but in reality their behavioural pattern remains authoritarian. They uphold the rule of law and work ethic, but do not live according to these Western values. As a result, the whole Korean society suffers from anomie and confusion.

Korea is faced with a dilemma: Traditional Korean culture is one of the important elements of Korea’s national identity as a nation-state and therefore it cannot be completely replaced by Western civilisation. The desirable and practical solution is to harmonise Western and Korean cultures. In order to become a modernised and rich nation-state, Korea should discard some elements of Korean culture such as authoritarianism (hierarchical social order, paternalism, status-orientation and male chauvinism), empty moral codes, non-scientific ways of thinking and fatalism, while solidly integrating Western values and beliefs that can contribute to modernisation (e.g. Western work ethic) into Korean culture and strengthening some traditional Korean values and beliefs (e.g. Confucian moral codes).

It is unfortunate that the Korean national identity has not clearly been defined and understood by the people. The Korean constitution enunciates the free democratic political order guaranteeing security, freedom and happiness, and promoting justice, humanitarianism and brotherly love. This is the goal to create the Korean national identity, not the confirmation of it. The key question is how to establish the national identity and create a new Korean culture. The government, civil society organisations, and educational and religious institutions should form a triple coalition to create a new Korean culture. Korean culture is going through a critical period of great transformation.

Park Sang-seek is a former rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, and the author of “Globalised Korea and Localised Globe.” - Ed.


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