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Understanding Korean Modernization

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Courtest of Shawn Anggg

David A. Tizzard

By David A. Tizzard

Ask foreign students whether Korea is modern or not and you will get lots of different answers. Many will nod their heads and point to the first-class infrastructure and public transportation that safely whizzes them around the capital city with free WIFI. They will acknowledge the technology on display at every moment, from the gadgets people hold in their hands to the digital kiosks and delivery systems which provide citizens everything, from kimbap to cosmetics. Others however will be a little more apprehensive to call Korea modern and will cite worries about gender inequality, a lack of systemic protections for the gay community, general ignorance of trans issues and personal pronouns and pedagogical problems in the schools.

A divide thus occurs with some people defining modernity through a technological and economic lens and other people insisting that values are part of modernity. Moreover, there a specific set of values that they associate with modernity: their values.

Values and time

We often associate values with a certain time period. For example, if someone says, "I believe in xx", we might respond that such a belief is backwards (i.e. belonging to a previous age and not in-line with modern thinking). By the same token, we call other values progressive and perhaps further along the time period than we currently are. An interesting interpretation of this is that values change and are not universal. Instead, according to the time and place, the values that are considered modern are in a constant state of flux. Modern approaches to gender, sexuality, politics, the environment and education are all different in France, Canada and Korea today than they were 10 years ago.

But they don't all move at the same speeds and they don't all arrive at the same destination. Culture, history and people matter. The nature of Korean modernity is different from European modernity and North American modernity. It must be because the foundational structures are incredibly different. Confucianism is not Christianity. Colonizing and being colonized are not comparable. Civilizational states centered on culture are not the same as nation-states with a focus on bureaucracy. Just as modern psychology and current discourse talk so readily about lived experiences providing unique frameworks of understanding that should be acknowledged and accounted for, countries, too, have their own lived experiences.

Conscious Korean modernity

Ever since a couple of American officials split the Korean Peninsula in two by drawing a line across a map in a National Geographic magazine in 1945 in order to divide the spoils of World War II with the Soviet Union, the people here have been divided. Moreover, they have been forced into two different ideological systems with little reference to cultural or geographic divide. Half the population were to embrace capitalism and democracy, the other communism and Stalinism. This Cold War division, which still remains today, has meant that Korean modernization was necessary. South Korea did not have the luxury of being able to modernize at a slow leisurely pace. It was not able to have its people sitting around playing acoustic guitar and singing songs of peace and love. There were communists at the border who wanted their land. Moreover, they had already to tried to take it once (1950-1953) and very nearly succeeded. Therefore, South Korea had to modernize. It had to build a country quickly so that it would not be overrun and taken from them.

The west was the standard and, with nearly 30,000 U.S. troops here, America was always likely to be the model to follow. So, now South Korea has baseball, hip-hop, hot dogs, crop tops, and democracy. It has politicians, lobbyists, Christians and cults, Netflix and Instagram. It has urbanized the people and the land, taking a largely agricultural and rural population and turning them into urban apartment dwellers in but a few decades with towering vertical concrete structures replacing the more spacious horizontal dwellings of the farms and hanoks. This drastic change of environment has proved difficult for some.

Civilization and its discontents

Korean people will use the word "bulan" to talk of anxiety or unrest. And it's forever a difficult thing to explain how and why the "bulan" (mental health problems, happiness levels and suicide rates) in the country have increased despite the material prosperity being far greater than what they have ever been. The people of the past did not have air conditioning, taxis and 24-hour convenience stores; online tutors, smartphones, and state-of-the-art hospitals. So why has modernity brought about so much in the way of discontents? Everyone, from Freud onwards, has their own reasons. Some say too much of our natural impulses and desires are restricted by the civilizing process. Others will charge neoliberalism with the crimes and wave their communist card proudly in the air. Some, will even accuse Korean culture itself of being the problem. These people suggest that issues will remain until the very root is eradicated (without perhaps realizing that no country is without its problems).

We do know that rather than change itself, the speed of change is often important. If a nation changes too slowly, it risks stagnation and being left behind by other more progressive and forward-thinking groups. This was the issue that befell the Chosun Dynasty and resulted in 35 years of Japanese colonization. If, however, a country changes too quickly, the results are equally, if not more, disastrous. Witness the immediate results of the French Revolution or the consequences of Chairman Mao mobilizing youth and trying to remove the "four olds" from society.

Korean modernization

Some people don't think Korea is modern because it doesn't adhere to certain values. However, if you compare Korea or today with Korea of ten years ago, twenty years ago, or fifty years ago, it is far more modern than it was. This today is modern Korea and the most modern it has ever been. Considering the historical and cultural circumstances, this is also the probably the most modern it can be at this moment in time. To charge it with not being the same as modern France or modern America is just like bullying someone because they don't have the same physical characteristics as you or the same hobbies and taste in music. Korea cannot be like anyone else. It can only be like Korea. The question it and its people continue to ask themselves is, "What will modern Korea look like in the next ten years?"

Dr. David A. Tizzard ( has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies and lectures at Seoul Women's University and Hanyang University. He is a social/cultural commentator and musician who has lived in Korea for nearly two decades. He is also the host of the Korea Deconstructed podcast, which can be found online.


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