This is part of an ongoing series, the “100 Countries” project of this writer with EastWest Psyche Ltd. Brief photo essays may be found at https://eastwestpsyche.org/blog/ while full-length articles appear here.
Korea, long known as ‘The Hermit Kingdom’ for its historical reluctance to engage with the world, has burst into the global consciousness in recent years – for reasons both positive and negative. Artifacts of human habitation on the peninsula date back to 8,000 BCE; as the small country-once-kingdom(s), since 1945 divided into two nations, is surrounded by much larger entities – ‘the shrimp between whales’, as the Korean saying goes – the outer world has long represented threat, a cultural thread that stretches into the present time.
The first kingdom on the Korean peninsula was established in the 7th century, with successive monarchies and even a short-lived ‘empire’ (1897-1910), occupations by China (194 BCE-213 CE), Mongolia (1270-1356 CE), and most recently, Japan (1910-1945), and interventions by Imperialist Russia (1860-1903). Prior to the Japanese colonial period, the Joseon Dynasty had ruled for 5 centuries (1392-1897), the influence of which, in particular its strong revival of Confucian social structure, lingers well into today. As reflected in the history of Korea, Northeast Asia overall is generally thought of as a region with long, largely unresolved conflict, including territorial and other disputes that continue to this day.
The 20th century brought multi-layered trauma to the Korean society, beginning with a repressive Japanese occupation for 35 years. This was followed by a period of chaos; the victorious Allied Powers of WWII liberated Korea after the concession of Japan, but considered them an enemy state because of this occupation. As a result, what was meant to be a temporary division of the peninsula was created and a US shadow government installed, as the winning nations argued over what to do with the peninsula. North Korea (officially, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) adopted a communist governance and the Cold War era was just beginning, leading to ‘red scares’ in South Korea (Republic of Korea, ROK) that resulted in multiple mass executions by the military of the nation’s citizens accused of colluding with the North; the trauma of these mass deaths remains a highly politicised and largely unresolved issue today. This chaotic period led to what was officially a civil war between the two Korean factions, though in reality it was a proxy war between US, Russia, and later China, each of which had a vested interest in controlling this keystone to the region.
The war itself (1950-53) remains legally unresolved and a major security as well as cultural issue to this day. Ending with an armistice but not peace treaty, the war is not technically concluded even now, and reparations are yet to be fully determined; the division into two increasingly diverse nations in both culture and governance continues, with periodic military conflicts. In North Korea, generally viewed as the provocateur (and indeed the country, by developing and testing nuclear missiles, routinely breaks international law and treaties it has signed), cites for its continued armament the insecurity represented by refusal of the US, and South Korea following suit, to sign a peace treaty unless the North disarms. In South Korea, the threat of their cousin to the north is largely ignored or minimised by the populace as a coping mechanism – and likely a false sense of security – while it feeds into the fast and intense pace of living, which can be viewed as an unconscious attempt to outrun danger.
Following the war, which severely damaged nearly all cities in South Korea and left the country economically devastated, even as some of the wealthiest families profited first in collaboration with the Japanese occupiers and then by the war itself, three successive military dictators ruled over the nation, complete with surveillance and censorship, secret police, curfews and other restrictions, and martial law. The fight for democracy, constitutionally introduced in 1948 but not executed as such, represents yet another layer of trauma; peaking in the early 1980s, first with a government-ordered massacre of demonstrators in Gwangju (May 1980) and continuing with multiple imprisonments of protestors, it was hard-won by 1987 and this legacy of trauma, including deep political divisions within the society, also continues today.
The nation rebuilt its infrastructure and economy within 30 years following the war, considered an globally unprecedented rate of post-conflict reconstruction. Having reached a period of relative economic stability by the mid-1980s, however, a financial crisis in 1997 which required an IMF bailout again devasted the Korean economy and required rebuilding – to what is today considered the 10th largest economy in the world, in a country without natural resources and with a population of just 52 million.
Such a rate of development, however, generally results in uneven infrastructure and an unofficial class system with ever-widening disparity, both evidenced in South Korea today. The Park Chung Hee administration (1961-1979), initial driver of this economic ‘Miracle on the Han [River]’, ended abruptly in his assassination amid a military coup – yet another societal trauma; with methods comparable to those of Mao Tse Tung in China during this same period, Park oversaw an extreme modernisation effort in which many traditional practices were rendered illegal. This represents a sudden and violent break in the cultural transmission of tradition, typically considered a major stressor on the cultural psyche.
Such dramatic economic success, not once but twice, comes with a psychological toll paid by its citizens, not the least of which is the excessive working hours required. It was not until a new labour law in 2005, in fact, that companies were required to give employees two successive days off work weekly, prior to which it was common to work 6-7 days per week with exceedingly long hours, not atypically 16-20 hours daily. As it was almost exclusively men in the workforce, this also represents the absence of father figures in family life, as corroborated by many citizens; indeed, the common conceptualisation of the company, until quite recently, has been one of ‘family’ to the employee – who thus bears great obligation to same.
The country has achieved many successes. South Korea threw wide its doors to the world first in hosting the summer Olympics of 1988, making a concerted effort to position itself globally ever since. As a result of its international recognition as a digital leader in this technological age, and to a government branding policy known as ‘hallyu’ (a constructed term to indicate ‘Korean wave’) which has included the careful 3-stage promotion of pop cultural products, food, and traditions, the nation has successfully branded itself as ultra-modern while retaining a sense of tradition.
Education represents another area of achievement; an exceptionally high value in Korean culture, 70% reach tertiary level; this is not without its negative side, however, as it has resulted in an uneven job market: insufficient employment for graduates, while jobs requiring less education remain unfilled and require migrant workers from nearby countries.
Despite the nation’s many successes, the strain resulting from two periods of reconstruction — and indeed the cumulative trauma of the past century and ongoing regional insecurity — continues to play out in this highly competitive and exceedingly stressed society today. South Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD nations, a tragic ranking the nation has held every year since 2003 except for two in which it ranked second, and which includes one of the highest rates for both elderly and adolescent subgroups. The country also ranks #1 within OECD for consumption of hard liquor, as well as for the number of hospital admissions for mental health concerns. South Koreans are broadly considered one of the most sleep-deprived, with one of the world’s most late-night cultures and a high consumption of sleeping medications.
A social trend known as ‘Hell Joseon’ (an earlier name for the country) emerged in 2015, referencing the ever-increasing employment, housing, marriage, and general achievement difficulties faced by the nation’s young adults who don’t see a future for themselves. More recently, an extraordinarily vituperative ‘gender war’ has been taking place, in this country which regularly ranks in last place among OECD nations for women’s employment, pay, position in both corporate and political settings, and other indicators of gender equality – and, with its mandatory military requirement for young males without any equivalent civic duty for females, widely considered discriminatory. The ‘Me, Too’ movement took its own form in this nation, adding fuel to the already incendiary issue, while the incoming president has vowed to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality. On a related note, an online community known as ‘Ilbe’ represents a particular social concern; in existence for 10+ years and increasingly hostile, with a membership primarily of young males, the group has been identified as ‘far-right, anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBT‘, and has also been known to act out in society.
As well, and in keeping with many other developed nations, this still-young democracy is experiencing fierce political divide with a high degree of distrust in government. The ongoing conflicts with each of its 3 immediate neighbours represent yet another continual stressor; in particular, while South Koreans largely ignore any threats from North Korea, both as a coping mechanism and based on a longstanding policy of brinkmanship with many false alarms, nevertheless there is the very real possibility of aggression at any given moment.
In this deeply traumatised yet resilient small nation, a typical PTSD psyche is evidenced. The society is resolute and pragmatic, averse to fantasy, hypervigilant / hypersensitive to perceived insult, and continually seeking apology, resolution, and restitution re: past conflicts without satisfaction. There is an exceedingly high degree of consumerism which likely stems from a scarcity consciousness borne of former poverty and includes the equation of wealth and luxury with personal worth for a generally classist view of society. This is also a very fast-paced culture, while reactive and prone to leaving things to the last minute rather than planning ahead, indicative both of rushing toward the future as an attempt to gain distance from a recent traumatic past – and never quite being able to count on the very existence of said future.
The disruption to tradition caused by a breakneck rush toward modernity, including the ever-decreasing Confucian ideals as pertain to family ties and responsibilities, hierarchy and positioning, and gender and other social roles, further creates a high degree of uncertainty and generalised insecurity. While Geert Hofstede, one of the world’s foremost experts in the study of cultures, ranks South Korea in keeping with its Confucian past — on a scale of 100, he places Power Distance at 60, Individualism 18, Masculinity 39, Uncertainty Avoidance 85, Long Term Orientation 100, Indulgence 29 – there have been no updates in the Hofstede scheme since 2002, while the society has undergone rapid social change in the past two decades. There is a move from collectivist to individualistic identity and valuing, away from risk aversion and long-term orientation, and from a hierarchical toward an egalitarian stratum, albeit with an ever-widening socioeconomic divide. Though one of the most ethnically intact cultures in the developed world, this too is changing rapidly, from 99% Korean / 1% foreign (mostly SE Asian) in 2005 to 4.9% foreign in 2019.
A secular nation with 52% of the population reporting as atheist or nonreligious, Korea maintains a high degree of syncretism among its various religions, the world’s largest evangelical Protestant church, and a 5,000-year ongoing tradition of shamanism inherited from central Siberia, with a longstanding propensity for cults no doubt encouraged by a generally collectivist identity. The culture is also known for relative emotional demonstrativeness when compared to others in the region, the so-called ‘Latins of NE Asia’, or as Koreans say, “like the rice pot, quick to heat and quick to cool.” There are several terms used to describe the Korean psyche which don’t exist in nor translate to other languages and their cultures; some of these include ‘jeong’ (a complex amalgamate of love, connectedness, resonance, and loyalty toward another); ‘nunchi’ and ‘kibun’ (the former an innate ability to sense the latter in another person, which is inclusive of emotions, mood, and overall state of mind as well as one’s ‘face’ or sense of identity and social respect), both of which are necessary for maintaining the highly valued harmony, or ‘inhwa’, of a collectivist society; and, ‘han’ (a melancholic longing and sadness, generalised feeling of loss, sorrow, resentment), a 20th century term strongly associated with having been colonised and generally related to the traumas as outlined.
South Korea is currently the #1 most rapidly aging nation globally, with the world’s lowest birth rate (0.81 in 2021), marriage now at its lowest rate since national records have been kept, and 31.7% (2020) of all households with single occupancy, a structure unheard of just 2 decades ago. Conversely, overpopulation is also a factor, as the nation which ranks just below Iceland in land mass hosts a population of 52 million; yet, the low birth rate does bring great concern for a near-future workforce in this nation with no natural but only human resources.
The Korean peninsula has endured despite numerous challenges throughout its history, perhaps none more so than those of the 20th century with residuals of those multi-layered traumas still in evidence today. This longstanding ‘Hermit Kingdom’ which, largely, retreated from the world for centuries, can still be seen in North Korea today; South Korea, however, has been deliberately and assertively positioning itself on the global stage since 1988, with a specific national branding strategy in place since 1999, to remarkable success. This includes not only the exporting of pop cultural products, but also engaging strongly with UNESCO and other international agencies, translation of Korean literature, exporting of foods, hosting high-profile international events, and much more. South Korea is well within the global consciousness today, while North Korea serves as a stereotypically polar opposite in the global worldview – a balance of yin and yang, or ‘umyang‘ in Korean language, even as many in the South still long for reunification.