The Sinking of a Ship in Korea Leads to Soul Searching by Tom Coyner

Media reports last week disclosed that Chairman Yoo Byung-eun was hiding behind a false wall on the second floor of his villa while the police conducted a “top to bottom search” of the place. Wearily, the public noted further bumbling in this seemingly never-ending episode. The ongoing, nagging question is why is this case so ongoing and nagging?

Obviously, much of this angst comes from thinly disguised nationwide insecurity. When I studied with Korean and other international students in Tokyo, I first encountered Korean insecurity in a much more extreme form than what is exhibited today. At the time, the Korean students really stood out as prickly and thin-skinned about anything regarding Korea. Others rarely discussed Korea with them. At the time, I suspected the problem was exaggerated by the economic and cultural gap between Japan and Korea. Daily, the disparities were shoved in the faces of Korea’s students. Today, those discrepancies have greatly diminished, as have many of the self-doubts of Korean students abroad. In the mid-’70s as a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea, I often found myself lectured on the importance of coming from a “good family.”

Often my lecturers were only slightly older than me from middleclass backgrounds. But I was quickly reminded that only a generation or so back, their families had been regarded in some way or another as elite. So they were “good families.” Having earlier studied in Japan while living with Japanese families, I naturally compared Korea with Japan. In Japan, whether you like it or not, socially you know exactly where you and your family stand at all times. To be fair, one may rise or fall in society, but there is generally little controversy about one’s social status at a given moment.

In Korea, I observed the country was undoubtedly the world’s most Confucian society. Social order and ranking were extremely important. Oldest sons’ – and particularly daughters’ – authority over their siblings was only slightly less than that of parents. Older sisters bossed around siblings, the mother controlled the older sister and the father commanded everyone. No serious challenges to authority, in or out of the home, were tolerated. It was how society once worked. Today, we still can see some of these forgotten patterns in less financially developed societies in Southeast Asia.

But those cultures and traditions face challenges from modernity and rapid economic development. Meanwhile, Korea has zoomed ahead in terms of wealth, but at what cost? Modern Korean history’s turmoil has repeatedly traumatized the nation. The net result is that Korean families try to find their place in a social order largely devoid of a common set of agreed upon standards, save for wealth. Since my return to Korea in 2000, I have watched the desperate struggles of individuals and their families trying to “keep up with the Kims.”

I first thought it was simply a matter of getting ahead, as in the United States. But I later discovered the fear runs much deeper. A South Korean family’s greatest anxiety is falling behind. And with whom they compare themselves is neither static nor absolute. As too often is the case with human nature, the elite only compare themselves with other families that are similarly well off. When wealth by itself is deemed to be inappropriate as a measure of social standing, it can be almost impossible to gauge one’s family standing given the lack of commonly acknowledged social yardsticks.

The good news is this kind of permeating insecurity has created a drive for success and accomplishment that is probably unmatched by families of other nations. But at virtually every level of society, this extreme social competition to catch up, keep abreast and possibly get ahead often results in subordinating quality and thoroughness to speed. Returning to current events, we may recall there have been traumatic and embarrassing episodes of a department store building imploding, a major bridge collapsing and gas mains exploding, but the Sewol ferry sinking has really been something else. Korean pride in the nation’s rapid meteoric accomplishments continues to be tarnished. At first, the nation seemed mainly traumatized by the large number of youths perishing.

But at virtually every twist and turn, incompetence, greed and corruption have continued to be exposed, right up to the identification of Yoo’s decomposed body a full month after it had been discovered, followed by the realization that police searching his villa failed to find him hiding behind a wall. One may say the entire ferry tragedy and its aftermath comprise a perfect storm of mishaps. And so it seemed at the beginning.

But with each passing week, the more appropriate analogy now seems to be Korea’s hurriedly built house of cards slowly tumbling, card by card, week by week. Korean families need to slow down. Individuals need to compete less and cooperate more for the common, long-term good.

by Tom Coyner.  Senior Advisor to IPG

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