South Korea on a New Path?

By Amy Mei Willis

South Korea is in the midst of rapid change. Just recently, the country saw the election of its first female president, Park Geun Hye. Park Geun Hye isn’t just any woman; in fact she is arguably The Woman. She was, after all, First Lady for the last five years of her father’s rule. America is no stranger to strong family political dynasties, but in this case many human rights proponents are hoping that Ms. Park does not take after her authoritarian, de facto dictator, father, Park Chung Hee. Mr. Park ruled from 1961 until he was assassinated in 1979. Under his rule, South Korea was the living embodiment of Orwell’s 1984. Speaking out about the government could get you arrested. There was a sense of foreboding and such talking was done in whispers.

It is said that Korea is the most Confucian country. Confucianism dictates clear social relationships between members of society. At the very top is the relationship between the ruler and the people. The ruler is not just a political head, but the ceremonial father of all peoples in the land. Understanding this complex relationship between the people and their worship of their leaders might lead to some logical assumptions about their attitudes. Why else would people actually fear the loss of a dictator? Parallel to the feeling of anguish about the departure of Mr. Park is the recent expressions of sorrow and/or fright in North Korea after the passing of Kim Jong Il. People felt they lost not just a political leader, but a parent – a father.

Kim used military might to control the populace, while developing a personality cult. Similarly, Ms. Park has made proclamations that she is the mother of the people and claims that she did not marry or have her own children so that she could one day be the mother to all Koreans. Perhaps it is only our own prejudices that want to suggest that she will be a softer leader simply because she is a woman.

Women’s rights have improved steadily over the years in South Korea. There is a growing acceptance of working mothers and there is a standard three month period for maternity leave. It is more common now than before to find women as principals or executives in compa nies. However, the country is still dominated by powerful males and any female in a highly ranked position of power more than likely got there because of family connections. Because of the legacy of Confucianism, people still are aware of their class and it is accepted to use bribes and gifts to gain advancement. Failure to bestow a gift to the supervisor on the first day of a new job would be a disaster. The result would be losing face, which is equivalent to losing honor but more importantly, family honor.

Marriages are unconventional by modern standards. The Korean husband is almost entirely a free agent and the wife must abide. Many husbands work in different cities or even countries from their families, maintaining a separate apartment or mistress. The wife’s duty is to stay at home and care for the children on top of any outside job she might hold. A woman, by no means, would be allowed to leave her family for work. The working woman has brought about some changes in society such as the emergence of Ms. Park. More and more women marry late or not at all. However, there is enormous pressure from society to get married simply because family is a virtue in Confucianism.

The Korean economy has slowed down due to domination by monopolies called chaebols. There has been an influx of immigration to the country, mostly from the Philippines, China or Vietnam. Many of these people are “mail order brides” sought by Korean men, due to the dwindling numbers of Korean women willing to marry.

Thus, Korea now faces the pressing issue of multiculturalism. In April 2012, Jasmine Lee became the first naturalized citizen of Korea. She was also the first non-ethnic Korean — to win a seat in South Korea’s National Assembly. This is important: the pride of “one blood” remains strong in Korea. Students who are biracial are bullied and ostracized. In fact it’s often kept a secret. It wasn’t until 2012 that biracial or multiethnic people were allowed in the army, previously a different color of skin was thought to disrupt unity. Most the distrust and discrimination is against other Asians, though it does happen to White/Caucasians as well. And it certainly happens to Black/African-American/Canadian/British people. To be Korean, you need to be ethnically Korean. As a result, few Koreans here in the U.S. can understand the concept of Chinese-American, African-American, Italian-American etc.

Despite globalization, the desire to keep Korea Korean remains. There is little knowledge of the outside world, even though nearly everyone has internet access and owns a smart phone. Culturally, it appears Ms. Park will be a conservative like Lee Myung Bak. But although the efforts of major Korean chaebol’s to stonewall against foreign media, there has been a slightly higher awareness of social issues. Recently, a popular Korean drama (K-Drama) featured a gay character. Homosexuality is intuitively against Confucian values since outside of unconventional family models procreation is nonexistent. It should be of no surprise that adoption is frowned upon even for heterosexual couples since blood ties are so meaningful.

Many foreigners who visit Korea will tell you it’s like 1950’s America there. Will Ms. Park lead Korea through the liberation of the 1960s and onward is the big question.

Amy Mei Willis is a 1st year student at Suffolk Law School and an NLG Student Representative.

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