Korean National Identity: Comparisons to Israel, France, & the US

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: Obama: SK is kicking our butt on education and tech; Obama: SK is an example of a country that modernized but didn’t westernize; Michael Crichton: SK is a clone of Japan, and they are taking over America; John Bolton: Long-suffering SK gives us an excuse to stomp on NK.

Of these, I really think only the second is valid. 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 your 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. 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 ‘last mile.’

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, etc. are the reasons for US ‘decline.’ Asians like the Japanese, Koreans, or Singaporeans don’t have some magical growth formula; they’re just better disciplined, but the way Amy Chua’s ridiculously racist domestic fascism would have you think.

Bolton: I resent they way neo-cons manipulate SK unhappiness about national division to suit pre-existing ideological preferences for regime change and US military activism. I have noted before that SK want nothing to do with ‘Axis-of-Evil’ talk.

Given this mediocre record, 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.

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. Compare SK and Israel, with Indonesia, Pakistan, or Turkey.

2. a. Like France, Korea has aloof, somewhat 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, like 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 Chun-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 KFDA. 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.

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.

Filed under: Culture, Domestic Politics, Europe, Israel, Korea (South), United States

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





Re: Korean National Identity: Comparisons to Israel, France, ...

Firstly, very well written and quite informative. Much of what you say definetly mirrors what I have seen and experienced in my time here.

--> "Obama: SK is kicking our butt on education and tech; Obama: SK is an example of a country that modernized but didn’t westernize; Michael Crichton: SK is a clone of Japan, and they are taking over America; John Bolton: Long-suffering SK gives us an excuse to stomp on NK."<--

I guess people are drawn to make statements such as these from things they hear or see. I imagine Obama had a nice visit to Seoul, and the Korean hosts tried their best to show every aspect of Korean culture and hide the western influences. How can anyone, who has spent even a DAY in Korea, say that this culture has not been dramatically westernized? The influence can be seen EVERYWHERE, literally.

Of course, this is politics. I guess this is just kissing the proverbial cheeks of Korea, praising their education, technology, and ability to retain their culture! Amazing....

I guess my point is I would expect more from the president of the most powerful nation in the world. Critical observations: not made, or not stated. 

The Korean education system has major flaws and I hope that change can be made. Quality-->quantity. 

Also, your comment concerning University education was quite interesting. I do have some friends in University here and I have seen and been told exactly what you said. Nobody can challenge Korean high school perhaps, but University life (while well deserved) seems to be a dramatic change of pace. How strange that students are groomed and prepped to study so hard, but as soon as they get to University, they don't need to anymore.