Modernization and Nationalism in South Korea

Published: 2021-07-29 14:55:06
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Is it possible to preserve traditional Korean culture as South Korea continues to modernize and Westernize? In the 21st century, modernity is often equated with capitalism-industrialization, though the concept is more complex than that. The idea of modernity can be defined on sociological, political and cultural platforms. Modernity is a powerful notion, a departure from tradition; driven by political, social and economic developments. It is the acceptance that progress is inevitable.
Because this departure from conventional, cultural practices is essential to the implementation of modernization, many societies have struggled with breaking from tradition in an effort to modernize, to varying degrees of success. The difficulties to preserve culture while modernizing has been particularly prevalent in eastern Asian cultures — especially those that have been affected by the deeply conservative thinking of Confucianism — after they adopted the concept from the post-feudal West.
Emerging countries such as South Korea are especially burdened by trying to strike a happy balance between their traditional culture versus the prospects of modernization. Couple this with Confucianism plus the Korean peninsula’s self-imposed policy of isolationism in previous centuries, which resulted in limited contact with foreign innovation and one would expect South Korea to struggle bitterly to modernize while maintaining its traditional customs.
However, tools such as Korean Nationalism, the influence of Confucianism and the impact of the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula enable Korean society to better preserve and protect their culture while entering the modern world as a dynamic nation. South Korean culture can be tough for an outsider to grapple with. Though it has imported Chinese elements, it has also been shaped by the nation’s unique experiences with shamanism. If you just skim the surface, it is a very Westernized place. The youth has wholeheartedly embraced globalization.
If you take away the signs in hangul script, parts of Seoul could be mistaken for New York, London, or Berlin. Though South Korea has adopted elements from other cultures, they are determined to preserve their own. Many of the unspoken rules that govern daily interactions have not been changed from centuries past, come from the Chinese ethical/philosophical system Confucianism, which Korea adopted when it was a member of the Sinosphere. Followers of Confucianism, are governed by a system of virtues. Filial piety (? ; xiao) is considered among the greatest of these virtues.
It must be shown to the living as well as the dead, hence ancestor worship, which is called jesa (?? ) in Korean. Ancestor worship contributed to the conservative thought of Confucianism. Cultures that engage in ancestor worship are going to be conservative. They will not find new things attractive because that will challenge the ancestors. In contrast, Westerners perceive change as natural. Without the weight of a continuous history and the conservation of Confucianism, Westerners seemed more likely to look ahead. Western view of the future expected tangible, long-term progress.
Western history is more fluid. Unlike its neighbor China, Korea’s history is not a trap. It is not a set of rigid traditions that prevent the country from modernizing, but Koreans are intent on protecting and passing on their culture. Having a conservative ideology at the core of society such as Confucianism will ultimately help protect Korean culture. Korean ethnic nationalism (?????? ) — a political ideology and a form of ethnic identity that is prevalent in modern Korea — is another way Korean society is guaranteeing that Korean culture is preserved.
It is based on the belief that Koreans share a unified bloodline as well as a distinct culture. It is centered around the idea of minjok (?? ), which can be translated to “nation”. The majority of the Korean population continues to identify itself as “one people” (danil minjok; ???? ) joined by a common bloodline, ethnicity, linguistics, a shared history,etc. An ethnically defined Korea continues to gives Koreans a stimulus to national pride, and feeds hopes for the reunification of the Korean peninsula.
The movement places emphasis on traditional Korean customs. Advocates wants to ensure that the next generation continues to preserve plus pass on these conventions. Korean ethnic nationalism reached its peak during the biggest threat to Korean culture in the past century. Not modernization, but the Japanese occupation of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945. During the occupation, the Japanese enacted policies trying to stomp out Korean language and culture, replacing it with Japanese language and culture.
This includes censoring newspapers, prohibitions on Korean language, distortion of Korean history, relocation of cultural artifacts to Japan, Japanese-centered education, altering public monuments and so on. In general, the awareness of Korean history among Koreans declined substantially during this period; the new generation grew up with little or no awareness of their own heritage. The Japanese altered Korean history to justify their occupation of the peninsula to the international community by painting the Koreans as backwards and in desperate need of modernization.
This was possible in part because Korea had sealed itself off from outside contact for centuries. Resentment of the harsh treatment of Koreans eventually led to a revival of Korean nationalism, including in-depth research projects into the standardization of Hangul and Korean culture. Historically, the central objectives of Korea’s nationalist movement were the advancement and protection of Korea’s ancient culture and national identity from influence. The nationalist movement was very dedicated to the restoration and preservation of Korea’s traditional culture.
The impact of the Japanese occupation has resulted in the nationalist movement and its attitude towards Korean culture still being very prevalent in modern Korean society. When the Japanese occupation ended, Korean nationalism was still strong, even after the division of the peninsula. Taking the lead from the West, South Korea began the process of modernizing, adopting Western ideology along the way. The results have been astonishing: Korea has been able to modernize and enter the 21st with a booming, dynamic economy.
The adoption of a democracy as well as the capitalist system in the late 50s did wonders for the economy which took major economic leaps in the 80s. South Korea used to have a smaller GDP than some of the poorest countries in Asia, mostly due to the Japanese occupation during World War II, but became one of the four “Asian Tigers” and boosts one of the most booming economies in the world (#13). The nation is occasionally inaccurately thought to be poor and technologically ‘backward’, which, understandably, annoys the locals no end. South Koreans ake great pains to refer to their country as “Korea,” with no geographic distinction. In their minds, using the term “South Korea” gives legitimacy to the totalitarian doppelganger across the border. Nowhere else in the world is there a homogeneous group of people so starkly divided by ideology. South Koreans strongly believe in democracy as well as freedom. They are not so weighed down by Confucian values borrowed from the Chinese that they can not adopt Western political systems while still respecting their own traditions and conventions.
South Koreans talk about freedom, the notion of democracy and capitalism the way many Westerners do. Koreans are proud of their country, as indicated by the strong nationalism movement, though they still take great pains to maintain their culture while modernizing. The preservation of culture can be attributed to the Korean ethnic nationalism movement, Confucian values and the peninsula’s history with Japan. The lives of Koreans continue to be swayed by traditions, beliefs and rituals that outsiders might find outdated or confusing.
While the country establishes itself as an affluent democracy and boosts its engagement with the outside world, its traditional culture and national identity will be preserved and protected. Works Cited primary: Hessler, Peter. Oracle Bones. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print. This book documents Hessler’s first-hand account of East Asia, especially China. He serves as a journalist in Beijing and travels all over the subregion, trying to explain East Asia’s past and future. I cannot say enough good things about this book, however it is biased against Marxism and the CCP.
Hessler says that “[Chinese intellectuals] adopted the worst of Western systems (such as Marxism). ” Hessler refrains from giving his opinion about Mao and the communist regime however he his largely sympathetic towards the victims of the Cultural Revolution he interviews/researchers and some of his writing tends to paint Mao (and other communist leaders) in a negative light. He is in China during then-President Bush’s visit to China/South Korea and seems to imply that Bush does not understand Asia, especially China. Whether or not this is an accurate statement can be debated, but these are several however minor) examples of Hessler not being as objective as he could. Kim, Mun-ju. Saeroun Sahoe Rul Yonun Sangsangnyok. Soul-si: Sidae ui Ch? ang, 2006. Print. The title translates loosely to “Opening A New Social Imagination”. As far as I know, there is no official English translation, so I had to translate sections. A Seattle Public Library employee had told me would be helpful when I checked out the book (I copied the characters into a word document using a Korean keyboard and then consulted dictionaries/a friend who is fluent). The book is written by a South Korean.
In general, their stance is very radical and they are especially critical of the North Korean government, claiming they are “holding the nation back from creating a more progressive society. ” — Cummings, Bruce. Korean Society: Civil society, democracy and the state. 2006, Print. This book covers Korean society in relation to democracy, freedom, and other Western beliefs. As the title may indicate, this book is very against the North Korean regime (especially the communist system). It makes a quick jab at the North Korean government, claiming it is “backwards” and will collapse eventually .
Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print. This biography was compiled after 10 years of research and the consultation of many archives world-wide. I read it to increase my knowledge of the East Asian political climate during the Korean War/Korea-Sino relations (the index for ‘Korea’ in the back of the book was very long so I figured it was worth a read). Not only did it provide little help for my paper, but it is so biased that it cannot be taken seriously. All history is biased, but some history is more biased than others. This book is a perfect example of the latter.
The writing doesn’t even try to be fair and frequently takes things out of context to paint Mao as some horrible, diabolical monster. One detail that sticks out is when one of the authors states that, because Mao failed to bow to a CCP superior, he is apparently “thuggish”. The prose is sloppy and comes off like the authors have some grade-school vendetta against Mao. The man wasn’t a saint, but when writing a biography one needs to be objective. Dirlik, Arif. “Modernity as history: post-revolutionary China, globalization and the question of modernity” Social History.
January 2002. This article is exactly what it says on the tin: China, globalization, modernity. The article seems to agree with the idea that ‘history traps countries and prevents them from modernizing’ , and he subtly advocates for Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Eckert, Carter. Koreas Transition to Modernity, A Will to Greatness: Historical Perspectives on Contemporary East Asia. This is a short essay in a compilation of essays on East Asia. It talks about both Koreas and their attempts at modernization, praising South Korea and lambasting North Korea for its failures.
It paints the country as backwards and implies that modernization could solve all of North Korea’s problems. Gi-Wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy. Stanford University Press, 2006. This book explores nationalism in Korea in the past and present. The author admits that the Japanese occupation is a touchy topic for them, but the Japanese are still portrayed ruthlessly in relation to the rise in the Korean nationalism. Macdonald, Donald Stone. The Koreans: Contemporary Politics and Society. 2nd ed. Boulder: Westview, 1990. Print.
This book covers contemporary Korean politics while covering details of the past. It has many pictures and a great bibliography. The author paints the Japanese in a horrible light, calling them “barbaric”. The book also hardly criticizes the North Korean regime, implying that it is oppressing Korean culture. Rostow, Walter. Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Cambridge University Press, 1960. Print. This book uses South Korea and its implementation of capitalism as one of its main points. At the title indicates, it is very biased against communism and criticizes North Korea, the Soviet Union, etc.
Suh, Kuk-sung, Young-soo Kim, Il-sung Park, Jeong-soo Lee, and Se-jin Lee. The Identity of the Korean People: A History of Legitimacy on the Korean Peninsula. Seoul, Korea: Research Center for Peace and Unification, 1983. Print. This book deals with a myriad of subjects, summarizing what unites the Korean people. Because this book is written by so many people, I thought it would be difficult to find a bias, but the narrative is highly critical of the North Korean regime, claiming that “democracy and freedom” are integral parts of Korean history.
There is a chapter of the legitimacy of South Korea, but not one about the North, ignoring the North’s sovereignty. Yi, Ki-baek. A New History of Korea. Cambridge, MA: Published for the Harvard-Yenching Institute by Harvard UP, 1984. Print. This book is a giant history of Korea. I only read the sections about the Japanese occupation, which, predictably, portrays the Japanese as horrible monsters and occasionally exaggerates the plight of the Koreans, calling any form of violence (even self-defense) by the Japanese “unnecessary”. The author essentially presents a Koreanized version of all history that occurred on the peninsula.

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