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K-culture wars

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By David A. Tizzard

Korea is a country that frequently tops internationals lists, whether Billboard charts, innovation rankings, connectivity to the internet, suicide rates, working hours, or declining birthrates. For better and for worse, the country is now a cultural, economic, and technological powerhouse on the world stage that rightly holds its own against far bigger states. Its post-colonial trajectory has also brought about various divisions and cleavages in the country that are simultaneously unique and universal.

The dominant framework for political change in Korea has been a form of nationalism incorporating basic liberal democratic ideals but formed through a particular historical experience, with many of the values, symbols, and narratives generated by contending visions of imperialism, colonialism, and modernity. Where many in the west grew up in conditions of relative economic stability which produced post-material sensibilities in the cultures and subcultures of the 1960s championing women's rights, environmental protection, and civil liberties, a lot of Koreans faced stark poverty and dictatorships.

The Korean route to the 21st century has been characterized by some as a path of "wholesome modernization" and "postcolonial traditionalism". This encouraged citizens, women in particular, to adapt certain western practices to an indigenous way of life that would foster national development and fulfill practical goals often to the detriment of individual desires. And part of this was an adherence to one's "ponbun" ― a social identity based on a specific and given position conterminous with the totality of the nation. Basically, social cohesion and national success rested on the idea that people would know, and stick to, their role.

Of course, such a vision and national structure does not allow much room for individual existential growth. And perhaps that was the point. With state-led economic plans, men were often given access to favorable jobs and career advancement in emerging heavy industries while women were channeled toward supporting roles in textile factories. At the same, they were also expected to maintain the family home and be the main contributor to the raising of children. Such hierarchical and patriarchal positions were further reinforced by male military conscription which imagined men as the vanguard of the nation's resistance against communism and women as the supporters of these frontline fighters.

But now in a world with Netflix, 5G internet, and feminist Korean literature winning international awards, what do we make of the largely androcentric route the country has taken to modernity? And are there any lingering effects? Plenty it would seem. According to a June 2021 study out of King's College London, Korea is home to some of the world's strongest attitudes vis-a-vis the culture wars.

The "culture war" is an increasingly familiar term and denotes an ideological conflict between orthodox and progressive positions as to what moral views one should hold and how the nation's narrative should be constructed. It also points to an increased awareness of both culture itself as well as the idea of who wields power in terms of how said culture is defined. Culture wars are often most easily observed on particular issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, feminism, transgenderism, education, and attitudes towards race.

For some people, the culture wars are real and have an impact on our day-to-day lives in the most serious of ways. For others, they are a product of mass media and social platforms generating outrage for their own profit, and some hold that culture wars are utilized by political parties to maintain their power and influence by keeping people divided. There's probably an element of truth in all those positions. They all, however, point to the idea of division.

study carried out by King's College investigated countries' attitudes toward the culture wars by interviewing between 500-1,000 people from 28 countries from around the world. When asked to describe the level of tension between citizens with traditional values and those with progressive values, Korea topped the charts with 87 percent believing the problem to be serious. The global average was 66 percent while neighboring countries China and Japan were at the very bottom with 38 percent and 34 percent respectively. So it's not necessarily culture or geography at play.

In terms of reporting tension between men and women, Korea topped the charts again. For conflict between university-educated and non-educated people, Korea was at the top. Tension between political parties, between the rich and poor, between the young and old, and between different religions all saw Korea at the top ― well above global averages and well above its neighboring countries. Even on questions where it didn't place first, (for example in tension between elites and the working class), it was still very much near the top. Interestingly, the only category in which Korean citizens in the survey didn't report a great deal of tension was between immigrants and those born in the country. It would be fascinating to ask actual immigrants in Korea the same question as I'm sure the results would be different.

What the survey tells us is that the 500 Korean people questioned are reporting much greater cultural and ideological division in their society than those in other countries around the world. It is important to note, I think, that this survey observes the individuals' perceived tension in society rather than any objective measure or differences. It might be that cultural divides are actually stronger in other nations but are perceived by the citizens to be of less importance or not felt as keenly.

Nevertheless, it must be asked why Koreans have placed their country at the top of such international lists. I started the piece with a brief historical sketch to suggest one reason: because of the country's historical journey it is now having to come to terms with many issues in the modern age that others began addressing much earlier. And, with them coming to the fore now, in a world driven by social media and technological platforms, the intensity of the conversations might be enflamed and exacerbated. I certainly always notice a difference in the nature of such issues when scrolling through Twitter and when discussing them with young educated people in university classrooms.

Nevertheless, Korea tops international charts once again. I doubt the government is going to brand these particular achievements with a newly-established tax-funded ministry and by sticking a "K" in front of it ― but open and honest long-form discussion away from social media on such issues from those seeking power would probably help.

Dr. David A. Tizzard (datizzard@swu.ac.kr) has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies. He is a social/cultural commentator and musician who has lived in Korea for nearly two decades. The views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.

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