Korean National Identity (1): Comparisons to Israel, France, and the US



Part two is here.

I get lots of questions from Western readers about this or that aspect of Korea in comparison. We don’t really know about Korea too much, but Americans often use it as an example for some larger political point they want to make. Here are a just few examples: 1) Obama: SK is kicking our butt on education and tech; 2) Obama: SK is an example of a country that modernized but didn’t westernize; 3) Michael Crichton and Amy Chua: SKs and other East Asians are work robots who will take over America and cost your kids a job; 4) John Bolton: Long-suffering SK gives us an excuse to stomp on NK.

Of these, I really think only the second is valid. A few years here can rebut the others without too much trouble:

1) Korea has huge educational problems that Americans don’t really know about. After taking insanely difficult tests in high school in order to place into a good universities, Korean college students often slack and party as a ‘reward.’ Too much of university here is about building the informal social network that will carry you through your professional life and not actually clamping down to do the work. Korean students are also not the readers that college education demands, which is why they often struggle in US graduate programs. And far too much of K-12 is focused on rote memorization, so plagiarism is a huge problem. Also, in case you ever wonder why Korea is so wired (which Koreans love to brag about), recall that Koreans live in very dense urban clusters, frequently in high rises. These are very cheap to wire, compared to the far more diffused American population and the high expense of the US ‘last mile.’ (That said, my broadband here is awesome and is about to get even better.)

3) As for Crichton and Chua, gimme a break. America’s inability to balance its budget, control its imperial temptations in the developing world, fix its K-12 schooling mess, reduce hyper-inequality and high crime, etc. are the reasons for US ‘decline.’ Asians like the Japanese, Koreans, or Singaporeans don’t have some magical growth formula. I will agree that East Asians are better ‘socially disciplined’ (crime here is mercifully low), but not the way Amy Chua’s ridiculously racist domestic fascism would have you think. I’ve been here close to 4 years, and I have never seen anything like what Chua describes in the Korean side of my family. As for the ‘Asians-as-work-robots’ idea so popular in the US in the 80s and 90s, once you’ve experienced the East Asian post-work business culture of hard drinking and debauchery, you know that’s bunk too. I have seen enough Korean ‘salary men’ lean out taxi windows on Friday night to vomit while the driver waits complacently to know that the whole ‘Asian values’ schtick is a fraud.

4) Bolton: I resent the way neo-cons manipulate SK unhappiness about national division to suit pre-existing ideological preferences for regime change and US military activism. This is cloying, pretended sympathy in service to American, not Korean, goals; that’s extreme bad faith. I have noted before that SK want nothing to do with ‘Axis-of-Evil’ talk.

Given this mediocre record of popular comparison, here are a few comparative classifications of SK with countries western audiences might recognize better. Compare and contrast is a basic social science method. And comparative politics in political science is always looking for similarities among states on which to build generalization. So here are the ones that have leapt out to me:

1. Like Israel, Korea is a barracks democracy striving for international normalcy. Both are democracies but under long-term siege. Both would like to join the global economy, get rich and be normal, but can’t. Both struggle to maintain civil liberties in an threatening environment with inevitable slippage. Korea, for example, blocks internet access to NK websites; in Israel, Israeli Arabs can’t join the military. Both are trapped in partial or incomplete states. Korea is half a country, and Israel’s borders are up for debate. Both are too militarized for a democracy, but still, they are doing a really good job balancing a huge military role in society with democratic freedoms. By comparison, look at simlarly over-militarized democracies like Indonesia, Pakistan, or Turkey.

2. a. Like France, Korea has aloof, farily corrupted political class in a too-cozy, corporatist relationship with business. Both also have weak political parties and weak legislatures. So voting doesn’t really make much difference; political participation looks for other avenues.  As a result, both have a vibrant street protest tradition. Working for serious change within the system feels pointless because of an entrenched, circulating elite, toothless opposition, close party-state relationship, and a bureaucracy rather insulated from popular pressure. So when Koreans and French are most angry, they turn to extra-parliamentary means. They march on the streets. Immobilist, scandal-ridden politics channels real political grievance onto the streets.

b. Also like France, Korea is extremely centralized on the national capital. Seoul dominates Korean life, vacuuming up talent, wealth, and prestige from around the country. The goal of just about everyone is to go ‘up’ to Seoul, whether for school, the best jobs, or the best cultural life. You even see it among the expats. Even we foreigners in Busan say we wish we had a Seoul gig! And, as Paris does to the provinces, the rest of Korea is impoverished by this.

c. Finally, both Korea and France are semi-presidential systems. Both have a tradition of a megalomanical ‘father of the nation’ who created a super-presidential post above ‘grubby’ politics. In France, de Gaulle directed the ship of state from a constitution he set up for his own personal benefit as the living embodiment of France. In SK, Park Chung-Hee did the same thing. In both countries though, political institutions are weaker than you’d think because of their ‘great man’ origins. Eventually a succession must occur – no one lives forever – and both France and SK have struggled to tame the office of the president and build more routinized, democratic institutions open to the public. To date, France has succeeded better. Korea remains a very presidentialized semi-presidential system. Ironically, that may help Korea, because the rise of the prime minister in French semi-presidentialism has effectively created a bifurcated executive, particularly when the PM and president have different party affiliations. In Korea, the reduction of the PM to essentially the first cabinet minister has helped unify its executive.

3. The cultural gap between the West and East Asia is wider than the between the West and Latin America, Russia, or even the Middle East. In terms of food, music, religion, and language, the differences are far greater. So it is therefore all the more surprising how Americanized Korea is. English is everywhere – in the schools, on street signs, music, TV. Its institutions, especially military ones, are heavily patterned on the US; until 1981, the Korean version of the CIA was even called – the KCIA! Today there is still the K-FDA. Koreans watch lots of American TV and film. They eat our fast food and junk food (and are getting heavier for it). And they are beginning to pick up the American culture wars. They fight increasingly over stuff like abortion and the death penalty as we do. Korean evangelicals (yes, they are here too) even say that God has a special mission for the US no less! (Now that really is brainwashing.) My own personal guess for why Korea is so Americanized, is that if Korea can close the cultural distance between it and the US, the US is more likely to honor its alliance commitment and fight for SK. In other words, cultural Americanization is a national security strategy to reduce the ‘otherness’ of Korea to average Joe American, in order that he will agree to fight here. Kinda smart if you think about it.

Don’t push any of these analogies too far, but Obama mentioned Korea five times in the 2011 State of the Union, so I thought this might help.

Continue to part two.

9 thoughts on “Korean National Identity (1): Comparisons to Israel, France, and the US

  1. I teach in an all-English International Relations college in Daegu, and so I’ll say again how much I enjoy these posts. I occasionally give these postings as small readings in class (again, with your permission). I hope you will come give a talk here someday.

    I am very pleased to hear someone speak openly what I have said myself about Amy Chua. This narcissistic, child-abusing, condescending, racist ingrate who spits on the country that gives her a post at its top universities is contemptible as well as dangerous.

    I found the Korea-Israel/France comparisons interesting. I’ve always half-seriously compared Japan to Britain (pretends to regret colonial abuses but really only sorry that its empire is gone; solid history, architecture; aloof island mentality; public respectability masking private perversions), China to the USA (our country can do no wrong; everything must be big, big, big), and Korea to Ireland (conservative culture, history of grinding poverty, let’s drink, drink, and sing; gigantic martyr complex). An analogy worth thinking about, maybe?


    • Hah! I like the Ireland one. My grandparents would definitely agree.

      Thanks for your kind comments.

      I have mostly avoided the Chua controversy here. It seemed to so ridiculous and racist, and her ‘look at my awesome kids, you loser!’ arrogance is so insufferable, I just ignored it. Maybe I shouldn’t have, and of course you are right.

      I give lots of talks, and I would be pleased to consider your invitation. Just email me, so we can discuss the details privately. You are very kind to solicit me.



    • I think you are exaggerating Japanese history. I wonder you are from UK or British origin because I have found again and again that those people from UK or British origin are inclined to exaggerate and beautify Japanese history and culture as a same island country.

      First of all, Japanese imperial history was just 60 years. When you say ” Japan’s solid history”, what does it mean? Throughout long history Japan was culturally and intelligently importing country from Korea.
      Before industrialization, most of ordinary people in Japan, Korea, China suffered from poverty, not just Korean people.

      You try to compare Korea to Ireland from negative perspective.
      Anyway I don’t agree with your comparison.

      Ireland does not have her own invented language.
      Ireland is an island and Catholic country.
      Ireland is not a manufacturing economic power like Korea.

      Korea has conservative, progressive, intellectual and artistic culture together.
      Korean culture is influencing the whole Asia, but I don’t think Irish culture is influencing the whole Europe.
      Many Korean people don’t drink alcohol and enjoy singing either.

      I think we’d better compare Koreans to northern Italians (not southern Italians).


  2. 1. What is your opinion about pedagogy? Do you use the same methods at PNU you would at an American university?

    2. Concerning South Korea as a “barracks democracy”, what do you think is the probability South Korea would revert to a military authoritarian regime due to unification?

    Great post. Thanks.


  3. I really impressed your post about my country.
    I agree with many parts of your opinion especially Education and I’m really happy to find informative blog.



  4. Robert,

    Very good and informative. Makes sense of many of my observations about Koreas. You forgot about the legendary rudeness of a people living in dense, urban clusters, however. I can’t tell you how many times I was nearly run off the road in Seoul by an impatient busdriver or motorist while riding my mountain bike. Koreans also don’t move over when an ambulence tries to get through.

    I would slightly disagree about the Cold War mentality. Certainly in security circles that is the case, but the average young Korean cares not a whit about the threat the north poses. A few years ago a poll in Seoul had GW Bush as the greatest threat to world peace, and not Kim Jong Il.


    • Thanks for reading.
      Public politesse is just not a Korean cultural trait I think. I used to get shocked by people not holding doors here and such, but that is so endemic that I don’t think it is rudeness. I think Koreans would say it comes from their ‘bali, bali’ (faster, faster) culture. I don’t know.
      You’re certainly right about my students not caring so much about NK.


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