Modern Korea
A Confucian Society?
Confucian ritual in contemporary Korea
Icon representing traditional Korea
Korean TV drama: Mr. Sunshine
After the Kabo Reforms
Colonization, Division and the Search for Identity
By the early twentieth century, in the heyday of what is called the new imperialism, much of the entire world had been reduced to colonial status. The Japanese colony in Korea was exceptional, even so, because of the extremely large number of resident Japanese colonists and because of the high degree of intrusiveness of its colonial regime. By the 1930s, there was one policeman for roughly every four hundred Koreans, and the number of Japanese colonists in Korea was more than twenty times the number of French colonists in Vietnam. Japanese rule in Korea was, moreover, at first extremely ironfisted. After annexation, all the Japanese governors-general of Korea were active-duty generals in the imperial army, with one exception, who was a retired navy admiral. From 1910 to 1920, no Korean-owned newspapers were permitted, and all Korean political meetings and public assemblies were banned. Colonial economic policy also focused initially on the exploitation of raw materials and agriculture, and little development of modern business was envisioned, especially if it was not Japanese owned.
Japanese soldiers killing Koreans during the Japanese occupation of Korea
Seoul and Pyongyang before and after the Japanese occupation (showing Japan's modernization of Korea)
Paradoxically, Japanese colonization of Korea in some ways did promote modernization and even Westernization. For example, although Korea’s nonagricultural commercial economy had been notably less developed than either China’s of Japan’s in the nineteenth century, by the end of the colonial period in 1945 Korea was more thoroughly industrialized than any other part of East Asia except for Japan itself. Modern Western-style consumer culture also arrived in Korea together with Japanese rule. The cinema, phonographic records, radio, commercial advertising, magazines, department stores, and modern Western-style fashions in clothing all made their appearance in Korea’s larger cities during the period of Japanese rule. Modernization in Korea thus followed a complicated trajectory, including simultaneous Japanese-ization, Westernization, and also the maturation of a new sense of Korean nationalism. (A History of East Asia, 275-6)
Cover of the novel "Lost Names"
Lost Names
Scenes from the Japanese Occupation
In this classic tale, Richard Kim paints seven vivid scenes from a boyhood and early adolescence in Korea at the height of the Japanese occupation, 1932 to 1945. Taking its title from the grim fact that the occupiers forced the Koreans to renounce their own names and adopt Japanese names instead, the book follows one Korean family through the Japanese occupation to the surrender of the Japanese empire. Lost Names is at once a loving memory of family and a vivid portrayal of life in a time of anguish. (Lost Names, back cover)
In the following scene, the protagonist a sixth grade Korean boy (who remains nameless, as do all of the characters in the novel, in deference to the book's title) is being unfairly punished because his Japanese teacher failed to see the logic of his actions. It is also worth noting that all of the key events in the protagonist's life, including the one below, are based on actual events in the life of the author, Richard E. Kim.
Photo of Richard E. KimI am shoved through the door of the teacher’s room, where each teacher has a desk in a cubby hole. It is lunch time, and some twenty teachers — Japanese and Korean, men and women — are having their lunch. They all look up when I am flung into the room. No one says a word. I do not see my teacher. The Japanese athletics teacher is nearly holding me up in the air, hooking his fingers into the back of my collar, choking me. ... The athletics teacher is picking out a bamboo sword, which is used for fencing practice, from a rack by the door to the principal’s office. ... And, suddenly — with a whish — the bamboo sword smashes my bottom, jolting me with a numbing blow that instantly shoots thousands of sharp needles of pain through my body, snapping it into an arch, flinging my head backward. My body is shaking, and my knees trembling, and I can’t control my body. I press my lips tight and close my eyes with all my strength, but I can’t shut the tears in. I taste the salty tears on my lips, but I make no sound. The bamboo sword is slashing into my flesh, onto my legs, my bottom, my back, each blow contorting my body and blinding me for a second. Then — suddenly — my tears stop and my body goes limp, and I think I hear a voice saying, “That’s enough!” but the bamboo sword keeps smashing my body — yet, I am calm, so calm that I am almost surprised, as if I slipped out of my body so that I won’t feel the pain. I can take it, I can take it, I think, feeling strangely serene and almost powerful; every fiber of my being is alive and pulsating with a sense of triumph, not hatred, or pride, not heroic bravery, and of being larger than life. Don’t cry. ... They know not what they do. ... Love and Compassion for sinners and evildoers. ... Turn the other cheek, also. ... Be noble in suffering. ...
       But that self-induced, masochistic euphoria — an illusion — does not last long. There is no nobility in pain; there is only degradation. And, now, every sensation within me is turning with each blow, into a boundless contempt, and my contempt is burning into hatred, a hatred fierce and immense — until, screaming, I am bending down, pulling up my pants, and the bamboo sword is striking me everywhere, on my back, my neck, my head — and I am crouching down, buckling my belt, and, now standing up, screaming and screaming, blinded by my hatred and rage, I lunge at the man, my head smashing into his underbelly, my fists punching into his groin. The man drops his bamboo sword, clutches at the back of my jacket, and flings me down onto the floor. I land on my side and see the man double up for a second, and then, after straightening up, he charges at me. I struggle up almost collapsing and in that split second I see the Inspector swiftly pick up the bamboo sword and strike the Japanese man on the back, hard, so hard that the bamboo sword, as if stuck to the man’s back, follows him as he is knocked off his feet and is tumbling down to the floor by my feet, and I collapse, too, and, still screaming, I faint. (Lost Names, 130-4)
Map of Korea with the North/South Korean flags
Tanks during the Korean War
The Korean War
June 25, 1950 - July 27, 1953
Map showing timeline of the Korean War[In late 1949 and early 1959, there] seemed to be signals that the United States might not actively intervene in a Korean civil war, or be willing to shed vast quantities of American blood to prevent a forcible North Korean reunification of the peninsula. In 1950, therefore, Joseph Stalin finally gave his approval to Kim Il Sung’s ambitious plan of attack — with the understanding that there would be no active Russian participation. ... South Korea had a larger population than the north — approximately two-thirds of Korea’s total — but most of Korea’s existing heavy industry was located in the north. The northern military forces were also better equipped ... [and] as many as one hundred thousand North Korean soldiers had previous combat experience fighting with the Chinese communist forces during China’s civil war. These troops were already battle hardened, and their prior service in the Chinese communist cause also established an ominous burden of debt that the Chinese communists felt obliged to repay. ...

Map showing initial phase of the Korean War (the North takes the south down to Pusan)In the early morning hours before dawn on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces staged a massive offensive south across the line of the thirty-eight parallel. ... President Truman fully committed U.S forces in Korea and also ordered the American Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Straits to prevent a possible communist invasion of Taiwan. ... The defense of South Korea became a UN action. Eventually some fifteen countries would contribute soldiers to the war effort, although by far the largest foreign contingent came from the United States. ... By the third week of the war, over half of South Korea had been captured by northern armies. With only light handheld weapons to confront the northern armored vehicles, the first American units that engaged the enemy also fell back quickly. Eventually, however, UN forces were able to dig in and hold a defensive perimeter of about fifty square miles around the southeastern Korean port city of Pusan, which provided an essential base for resupply and buildup for a counteroffensive. ...

Photo of the mudflats at Inchon (where American troops landed)

Map of the Korean War highlighting landing at InchonNext, in a daring gamble, General MacArthur staged an amphibious landing farther up the west coast at Inch’on, on September 15. Inch’on is an important port city, serving the southern capital Seoul, but it has no nice sandy beaches and features one of the world’s most extreme tidal ranges. At low tide, an amphibious invasion must confront miles of mudflats. Inch’on could very easily have become a deathtrap for the UN soldiers, and MacArthur decided to strike there against much contrary advice — but he was fortunate, this time. Inch’on turned out to be the perhaps the single greatest triumph in General MacArthur’s long and distinguished military career. A mighty invasion armada consisting of 261 ships put the American X Corps ashore with the loss of only 536 men. By the end of September, the North Korean forces had been driven back to the place from which they had started, across the thirty-eight parallel. ...

Map of Korean War highlighting the push to the Yalu River (boundary between Korea and China)On September 30, the first South Korean troops passed north across the thirty-eighth parallel. On October 2, the Chinese premier (Zhou Enlai) formally notified the Indian ambassador that China would intervene if any American troops crossed the parallel. ... Although this Chinese message was repeated through several channels, it was evidently not taken seriously. On October 7, the American First Cavalry crossed the thirty-eighth parallel heading into North Korea. On October 19, the North Korean capital fell, and by October 26 advanced units of the UN forces had reached as far as the Yalu River, which marks the border between Korea and China. A few days earlier, on October 15, at an historic meeting on Wake Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, General MacArthur personally assured President Truman that there was “very little” chance of Chinese intervention in the war. Even if the Chinese did intervene, MacArthur boasted that they would be easily crushed in what he predicted would be “the greatest slaughter in the history of mankind.”

Chinese Propaganda Poster: "Resist America, Aid Korea"

Map showing final phase of the Korean War (with border back around the 38th parallel)The very next day, on October 16, Chinese so-called “volunteers” began crossing the Yalu River into North Korea, undetected by UN observers. Given the vast disparity in military firepower between the United States and China at that time (this was, furthermore, a People’s Republic of China that was still scarcely a year old), China’s decision to enter the war was an enormous gamble. ... Most senior Chinese leaders were reluctant to go to war against the powerful American armed forces, especially after Joseph Stalin belatedly informed them that the Soviet Union would not provide air support. But Mao Zedong calculated that the U.S. would be unwilling to wage an unlimited total war, and Mao was also confident in his doctrine of “people’s war,” which relied on huge Chinese resources of manpower rather than technology. ... On November 27, the Chinese struck in full force. Within a week, the center of the UN line had fallen back again some fifty miles. By January 4, 1951, the South Korean capital at Seoul had fallen to the enemy for a second time.

Truman Relieving MacArthur of Duty

General MacArthur seems to have felt at this point that the best military response to Chinese intervention in Korea would be to escalate the war by taking the offensive to the Chinese homeland. President Truman and the Joint Chiefs, however, sensibly enough, did not relish the idea of turning a limited, if nasty, war in Korea into a general World War III. ... When President Truman ordered that all future public statements concerning Korean War be cleared through the State Department, General MacArthur proceeded to violate this presidential directive repeatedly. MacArthur’s complaint was that the restraints being imposed on his war effort by civilian politicians were preventing him from winning total victory. In March 1951, MacArthur even wrote a letter endorsing the idea of “unleashing” Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese from Taiwan to open a second front against the Chinese communists. When this letter was read aloud on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. president viewed it as outright insubordination, and on April 11 President Truman officially relieved General MacArthur of his command.

Korean War Memorial in Washington DC

The bloodiest phase of the combat in Korea was still yet to come, but by June 1951 the war had reached an effective stalemate not far from its original starting point at the thirty-eighth parallel. Cease-fire talks began, and a truce was declared on July 27, 1953. The war in Korea had cost the United States some thirty-three thousand lives. China lost roughly eight hundred thousand, including Chairman Mao’s own son. The conflict left a staggering three million Koreans killed, wounded, or missing — one out of every ten. In the north, the war provided Kim Il Sung with an opportunity to further consolidate his power. In South Korea, it helped pave the way for three decades of authoritarian military rule. In China, the war greatly increased the prestige of the infant People’s Republic, which had taken on the world’s leading military superpower and not been clearly defeated. To the present day, two mutually hostile Koreas still confront each other across a heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ). An official end to the war has yet to be arranged. (A History of East Asia, 331-5)

Photo of a Korean woman with a child in front of a tank (during the Korean War)
A Tale of Two Koreas: statistics comparing North and South Korea
Map of Korea with the North/South Korean flags
Cover of the novel "Lost Names"
Back to the Book
The Oppressive Weight of Han
Chinese character for the word "han" (see definition below)
Han or Haan [ha̠n][1] is a theorized culture-bound syndrome in Hanja that denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of insurmountable odds, the overcoming of which is beyond the nation’s own capabilities. It connotes aspects of lament and unavenged injustice.
The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as a feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong — all these combined”[2] (Wikipedia/Han).

Photo of Richard E. KimNow, what I would like to do is to share with you one Korean writer’s will and effort to liberate himself and his characters from the iron grip, from the centuries-old clutch of Han. For what I have been trying to find in and through my writing is nothing less than the ways and means — psychological and philosophical — to destroy the Korean version of Han. But why, one may ask.

I am of that generation of Koreans who have experienced the Japanese domination of Korea, the Soviet occupation of North Korea, and the American occupation of South Korea with the resultant division of the country, and I am one of that generation who fought in the bloody Korean War, of the generation that experienced in a very short period of time a heartbreaking, bone-crunching tyranny of inexorable History, a generation that was asked to sacrifice most and that willingly sacrificed most.

And — having experience all that, having suffered through all that, and having survived to testify to the sacrifices, destruction, and unfulfilling aspirations of those of my generation both dead and alive — I found Han not to my liking, not worthy of my own and my generation’s battle hymn, and not acceptable as my final dirge. More than that, I found that Han had inhibited our will and spirit to wrestle our political freedom from the foreign powers and to explore and develop our own destiny.

Han — I realized — had made Koreans pliant before foreign powers and domination, subservient to foreign interests, and obsessed, masochistically and degradingly, with a petty, private, and baser instinct for only one’s survival.

Surrounded by foreign interests, which were urging on and forcing on us an outmoded concept and practice of dialectical materialism on the one hand and, on the other, a quaint, outmoded political, economic liberalism rooted in alien soils of materialistic pursuit of an illusory happiness on earth, and equally alien, imported religions with conflicting promises of salvation, Koreans, with their ingrained sense of Han as a way of viewing the world and understanding their place in that world, have become in the past powerless and susceptible to accepting either consciously or unconsciously their roles as victims. It goes without saying, then, that Han in Korea has helped produce many a Korean flunkey and servant of foreign interests.

I found Han, therefore, degrading and repugnant. It has — you see — a smell of defeat and a stench of death — in the not yet completed confrontation and conflict between my own and others’ small histories with a small h, and History with a capital H. (Lost Names, xiv-xv)

Photo of Koreans in traditional clothing (representing the retrieval of Korean identity)
Retrieving Things Lost
Certainly, what I am in search of in and through my writing are things lost to me personally and to Koreans in general by extension. To engage in remembrance of things lost is not only to remember and recall things lost but also to retrieve that which has been lost from the innermost niche of our souls (Lost Names, xiv-xv).

We had in the past lost a lot. We had lost our land to the Japanese; we had lost, because of that foreign domination, our country, which is to say a home to us, something much more than a mere nation-state. And, above all, we had lost even our names to the Japanese, who had forced us to adopt Japanese names. I would ask you to consider that extraordinary, historically unprecedented chapter in all histories of colonial experiences: a symbolic and quite ritualistic effort on the part of the colonizers, the oppressors, to alter the identity and destroy the self-respect of the colonized, the oppressed.

It was a brazen attempt by the imperial colonizers to erase and obliterate our history and, in the last analysis, our memories, our individual and collective memories. But, of course, it did not work out quite like that, and we have retrieved our names and all that goes with them — but still, we have a lot more that is lost to us, and we have a lot more to retrieve (Lost Names, xvi).

The proof of life — that is precisely what I am after, what I am in search of, in my remembrance of things lost. That — the proof of life — not of death — is what I am trying to retrieve from among the ruins and shambles of the twisted, distorted, stunted histories of our people in our recent past — to see a light, a glimmer, however faint, of the proof of life in the ashen twilight years of our past lives — so that that proof of life, of the living, will triumph over the withering negation of life, the dead ...

And — a reward for my remembrance of things lost may be not merely to cry out “Never again,” though I suppose one must begin somewhere, but to come to terms with one’s past, with one’s things lost, and to come to peace with oneself and, ultimately, I suppose, with the enigmas of the world — an affirmation of life — yes, as Joseph Conrad would exclaim — a moral victory (Lost Names, xvii).

Icon representing traditional Korea
Chart showing GDP growth in South Korea
The Rise of South Korea
& the Confucianization of Modernity

When they were suddenly liberated from the shackles of colonial rule and abruptly divided up by foreign powers against their own will, the Korean nation in the immediate aftermath of World War II was embroiled in nearly uncontrollable and frenzied, ideologically charged political struggles. Under the circumstances, Confucianism was not prominent in the consciousness of the people in general and had very little to do with the pursuit of modernization in Korea. This does not mean, however, that the Confucian element of culture did not survive this turbulent history or did not continue to affect the thoughts and behavior patterns of the Korean people. But it did not surface as a meaningful cultural force relevant to the issue of modernization until the early 1960s, when Korea finally emerged from chronic stagnation to embark on its unexpectedly swift economic take-off. ...
Definition of Postcolonialism (click for Wikipedia article)
[T]his took place in the 1970s when Korea was reclaiming its national identity, which it felt was rapidly disappearing from the national psyche, and intellectuals in social science fields were starting to advocate the “indigenization” of modernization. It was under such circumstances that the revival of some select Confucian traditional values was also attempted. In this sense, the whole movement may be understood in part as the politicization of Confucianism, and also in part the “Confucianization of modernity” as well. (Confucianism and Modernity in East Asia, 120-4 [RTTP Readings, 130-7])

Icon representing traditional Korea
Gender Gap: man and woman arm wrestling in front of the Korean flag
If cultural capital is any measure of quantifying how developed a country is, then within the past decade, South Korea’s development has shot through the roof. Some would go so far as to say PSY’s 2012 song “Gangnam Style,” by becoming a global musical phenomenon and subsequently the first video to reach one billion views on YouTube, forged the yearning for Korean music and culture within the heart and minds of a generation of global youth.  Given its increased accumulation of global soft power, ranking 18th on the 2016 United Nations Human Development Report, it is shocking that it still has a wide gender inequality gap — ranking 116th on the World Economic Forum 2016 Global Gender Gap, the lowest placement of any developed country.

South Korea’s gender gap seems particularly surprising given the amount of progress women’s rights have made in the country over the past three decades. Major steps towards equality include the 2000 legal act that ensured a 30% quota for female candidates running in electoral districts — as well as 50% for those vying for seats in the National Assembly — and the 2001 creation of the Ministry of Gender Equality (later renamed as the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family), which provides a legal mandate to promote women’s equality and empowerment.  Despite women’s gains in their pursuit of equal rights, experts point to the prevalence of traditional values that stem from the Confucian ideals (man as a breadwinner; woman as a homemaker; family, honor, and respect; and related tenets) that have led to fixed gender binary spheres. Speaking to the Columbia Journal of International Affairs, Eun Mee Kim, Dean at Ewha Women’s University, described the seeming progression and stagnation of gender equality in Korea as “hav[ing] been heavily influenced by traditional thoughts such as Confucianism that really made it difficult for women to be respected equal to men.”

Chart showing the gender pay gap in developed nations

South Korean experts point to the deeply entrenched stereotypical gender binary attitudes that weaken gender equality and women’s protection laws. Dr. Jiso Yoon, researcher at the Korean Women’s Development Institute, a government-subsidized research institute promoting women’s capabilities and social and political participation, noted that a “study analyzing gender norms of Korean citizens suggest that factors like sex, age, and employment status explain behavior regarding gender roles.” Clear gender bias, stemming from traditional gender binary norms, may help explain Korean women’s 63.7% participation in the workforce, including the largest gender wage gap amongst the world’s developed countries at 37.5%, according to the 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) gender wage gap report. (

Icon representing traditional Korea
"ASK A KOREAN!: No, Seriously, ask away. The email is on the right"
Relational understanding of humans is absolutely the most important aspect of Confucianism that operates in Korea today. Recall that the highest ideal of Confucianism is to achieve (in), which could be translated as “virtue.” And also remember this — in is always, always, always about relationship among people. In fact, the value of an individual’s life is secondary to the achievement of in. For example, when a person in Korea gives up her life to save another, she is praised for committing an act of 殺身成仁 (살신성인) — “kill [one’s] body to achieve in.”
The relational nature of in leads to the relational understanding of humans. Here is a great example of how this works. A few months before getting engaged, the Korean moved in with the Korean Girlfriend (currently the Korean Wife.) The Korean accidentally slipped this fact to the Korean Mother — a big mistake. A firestorm of phone calls ensued, featuring ridiculous screaming matches worthy of the most hysterical Korean drama. The Korean tried to persuade the Korean Mother that she had already met the Korean Girlfriend, that she liked her, and that she knew that the Korean was planning to propose within a few months. The Korean Mother’s retort was:
“Suppose I visit your house, and [the Korean Girlfriend] was there. What should I call her? Who is she to me?”
This may not seem like much, but that last question is the most crucial concern for someone who has a relational understanding of humans. For a Confucian-minded person, it is not enough to ask, “Who are you?” The most relevant inquiry is: “Who are you to me?”
Confucius demonstrating the relationship between ritual and humaneness with concentric circles representing the relational conception of the person
The Korean considers this aspect to be the most significant not only because it is the strongest influence of Confucianism that can be observed in modern Korean society, but also because it is the most different from the Western mode of thought. With a greater emphasis on relationships, individuals take a back seat. (BUT, it is important to note, the individual is not out of the Confucian car.) In Confucianism, a person does not exist autonomously. To exist alone is not enough. It is the link — not only the presence, but the type and quality of it — to another person that makes that person a human. (askakorean)
Icon representing contemporary Korean Confucianism