Campus News

Colloquium on Contemporary Korea

Story posted October 15, 2003

The Asian Studies Department, with sponsorship from the Korea Economic Institute and the Freeman Foundation, recently hosted a colloquium on contemporary Korea. Following is a summary of the discussion of Korean history and culture that opened the colloquium. John Goulde spoke on religion and the arts in Korea and James Lee spoke on its history and division.

Goulde, who teaches Asian studies and religion at Sweet Briar College, is one of only two Americas to earn a degree at Seoul National University. He lived in Korea for more than a decade and is well acquainted with its people.

"All remarks made are to be understood in the context of the secular, modern state," Gould, beginning his talk.

Being both modern and secular is a new phenomenon for Korea. Koreans lived in a Buddhist state for about 700 years. Following that they lived for about 600 years in a Confucian state. After Japan's defeat in World War II, Korea was freed from control of the nation that had occupied it for the first half of the 20th century. Since that time, South Korea has surged forward with advances in business and technology.

Today, visitors will find a thoroughly modern society; among its attributes are the following:

  • It is the world's 13th largest economy.
  • 99.7% of the population is literate.
  • The average family is a nuclear family with 1.5 children
  • 75% of the employees are white-collar workers.
  • 40% of the 45 million people in South Korea live in or around the capital of Seoul.
  • 75% of the population is connected to the Internet.
  • There are more digital phones in use than in Manhattan, Los Angeles or Chicago.

Despite the fact that it is now a secular society, religion still plays an important role in the lives of Koreans.

"Contrary to the advice of Dear Abby, the only topics Koreans really want to talk about are politics and religion," Goulde said, "lucky for me."

It follows, then, that understanding modern Korean identity is impossible without considering Koreans' feelings about religion. There are three basic categories of religion that exist in the country: imported traditions, such as Christianity and Judaism; native religions, such as shamanism; and synchronistic religions, most of which developed in the 20th century and combine elements of many traditions.

"Compared to China or Japan, Korea ranks highest in Christian adherence and about equal in Buddhism," Goulde said.

About 80% of the population acknowledges at least some adherence to religion. Of that 80%, 40% are Buddhist and 40% are Christian.

According to Goulde, motivation for religious life comes on two fronts: It satisfies a need that many Koreans have to express han, or anger and frustration; it also enables them to express their strong sense of conviction.

Throughout its history, Korea has struggled to exist between two aggressive giants - China and Japan. Han stems from the cultural aggression of which Koreans have been the victims and from a history of victimization by their own hierarchical government. (Korea is the only Asian nation to have enslaved its own people, Goulde said.)

Koreans, however, have found ways to adapt to the standards of whichever nation was in power, while managing to hold onto their own identity. They have a "stick-to-it-ness," Gould said, and whatever they embrace they embrace with a passion.

"Korean Catholics are much more orthodox than Italians, and Korean Presbyterians are much more orthodox than John Calvin," he said.

Christianity has appealed to Koreans because it brought with it a sense of upward mobility and a strong component of justice; Buddhism has appealed to the intellectuals; while nativist religions have appealed to cultural chauvinists.

The possibility of Korean unification, the antiglobalization movement, the need to combat corruption, and the desire for social welfare have also influenced Koreans' desire for religious life.

Despite centuries of male preference, the population of the Korean peninsula is divided fairly evenly between women and men, but women are twice as likely to engage in religious activity. As in many places, women are more attuned to spiritual issues, Goulde said, while men are more often distracted by "typical male pursuits, that is, drinking and making money."

North Korea is another matter entirely, as information about religious life is difficult to come by. Officially the people have religious freedom, but that doesn't mean that freedom is to be found in practice, Goulde said. An example of this is the fact that the North Korean government has secularized all aspects of ceremonial life - marriage, birth, death, and holidays. Religious celebrations have been replaced by events affiliated with the government.

Just as modernization has affected religious and political life, it has affected Koreans relationship with the arts. The arts have thrived in post-1950s Korea, and Koreans have embraced the idea that art is a way by which one can come to know more about other cultures, as well as being a way to critique one's own society.

Prior to the 1950s Korean art was limited to obscure artists and art was extremely class bound. Not viewed as a vocation, the arts were limited to traditional crafts and the leisure pursuits of the wealthy. After the 1950s art came to be recognized as a legitimate profession and artists became more sophisticated.

Today, the there is a thriving artistic community in Korea. In South Korea, there are 22 national museums and 68 private museums, as well as more than 7000 registered and professional artists. North Korea, too, has a large arts community, but like many things in the Stalinist state, the arts are largely government controlled. To demonstrate, Goulde showed a film of huge demonstration of culture put by the North Korean government for an international audience. The performance included dance, acrobatics and singing by thousands of North Korean youth.

Taking the stage after watching the performance, James Lee said, "It was almost eerily efficient."

Lee is a research associate at the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. His appearance at the colloquium was a preview of sorts, as he will be teaching at Bowdoin next semester.

Seeing such a display, Lee said easily calls to mind questions of how, in a country known for the suffering of its people, the government is able to organize such a spectacle.

"My talk is really about why there exists on the Korean Peninsula two different regimes with two very different ways of organizing people's lives," he said. "It has not always been this way."

For two millennia, the structure of Korean politics was that of a closed dynastic state. Then, at the end of the 19th century, Westerners entered Korea.

"That set in motion what you might call the opening of Korea to the Western World," Lee said.

This opening changed Korean culture and politics and eventually led to the creation of a modern state and a vibrant democracy.

"You could say that South Korean democracy is more advanced in some ways than democracy in Japan," Lee said.

He believes this is because democracy was imposed on Japan by the United States, but Koreans struggled it.

From 1910 to 1945, Japan ruled Korea. According to Lee, one of the reasons Japan was able to take over was that the Japanese dealt better with the challenges coming from the West after Korea’s opening. The Japanese spearheaded some economic development, but not democracy.

"In the Japanese colonial period, the Korean people still fought for their political freedom," Lee said. In fact in 1919 in Korea was the first non-violent protest movement, before Gandhi’s in India or Martin Luther King Jr.'s in the United States. Independence only came, however, when Japan was defeated by the allied forces during the Second World War, and then it was not in the form that most Koreans would have liked to see.

"[A]las for the Koreans, their country was divided into South and North Korea by the occupying forces of Russia and America," Lee said. (This was not unlike the division of Germany).

North Korea became a Stalinist state with its leadership and government dominated by a cult of personality surrounding its leader, Kim Il Sung, who ruled North Korea from 1945 to 1994. Took over. In South Korea, a regime was created that was allied to the United States.

After the division, in the 1950s, the two Koreas fought a war against each other. (Russia is now releasing many of the documents concerning this period, Lee said, which should lead to insight into this conflict.) After the war, both North and South Korea were trying to redevelop their economies. What might surprise many people is that North Korea did a better job of this at first. But in 1960, a military dictatorship was established in South Korea, and that dictatorship transformed South Korea into a "Japanese-style economic state."

"It was a highly successful economy, but the people did not really enjoy much freedom," Lee said.

Through the 1960s the country was ruled by a string of strong men who rose to power through the military. In the 1980s, there was a large, effective, student movement that forced the military leader to hold a direct presidential election in 1987. Today, South Korea is a thriving democracy.

North Korea, however, is a different story.

"Obviously the North Korean regime has failed, and the leaders there know that," Lee said.

It has failed, he said, partly because it is based on a flawed system in which the government sets the prices. The economy soon stagnated, and this fact, combined with famine and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which robbed North Korea of much aid money, has left the North Korean economy floundering.

"I hope that the very successful democracy in South Korea will be able to mature even deeper," Lee said, "so when the time comes for the two Koreas to become one again...the democracy in South Korea will spread."

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