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A Cultural Analysis of South Korea

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    A Cultural Analysis of South Korea

    History of Korea

    Korea was tagged as the “Hermit Kingdom” during the 19th century for its strong aversion to foreign influences. The Chosun Dynasty which reigned between 1392 until 1910 implemented a Sino-Centric political system which became a powerful tool in surpassing the challenges posted against the dynasty by foreign conquerors. Koreans valued the homogeneity and self-sufficiency laid by their mythological belief to the god-king Tangun. At the end of the 19th century, the country was occupied by Western and Japanese invaders. Japan ruled Korea in 1910 and at the end of the World War in 1945; the country was enmeshed with foreign rivalries. This signaled the start of alliances between Soviet Union and North Korea and the United States to South Korea.

    On August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea under its first president Syngman Rhee was founded; on the other hand, Kim Il Sung established the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea in September 9, 1948. The invasion of South Korea by the North Korean forces on June 25, 1950 paved way for the collaboration of a 16-member coalition led by United States under the United Nations Command. In July 1951, armistice negotiation started and was concluded on July 27, 1953 at Panmunjon which is now tagged as a Demilitarized Zone. This agreement was signed by a number of representatives from the Korean People’s Army, the Chinese People’s Volunteers, and the American-led United Nations Command. However, the agreement failed and was not supported by the Republic of Korea. Hence, a peace treaty was never signed that resulted to the catastrophe of Koreans. Consequently, the student-led upheavals in April 1960 led to the Syngman Rhee’s resignation.

    The second republic was led by Chang Myon for only a year due to coup d’ etat  led by Major General Park Chung-hee. The country experienced economic growth and development under Park’s administration but because of restricted political freedom, he was assassinated in 1979. Martial law was then declared by a group of military officers headed by Lieutenant General Chun Doo Hwan, and as a reaction against this, a student-led upheaval in April 1960 led to Syngman Rhee’s resignation. These decades of turmoil resulted to the Koreans’ revulsion against authoritarian leadership.

    Though Korean went through a series of changes in the administration, the elections held since 1987 were distinct marks of Korea’s commitment to democracy. In 1987, Roh Tae-woo, a former general, was elected as president. Five years after, during the 1992 election Kim Young-sam, a long-time pro-democracy activist, became the president. However, the 1997 presidential election when Kim Dae-jung was elected as president, marked the country’s leap towards a new level of democratization. This made a life-long democracy and human rights activist from a major opposition party. This commitment to democratization continued during the 2002 election when the self-educated human rights lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun, was elected (“Background Note: South Korea,” 2008).

    Korean Demography

    The Republic of Korea lies across the southern half of the Korean Peninsula at the northeastern corner of the Asian continent. It covers a total land area of 98, 190 km2 and 290 km2 water areas. The center of the 4-km-wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is its demarcation with the North Korea. The DMZ extends 238 kilometers over the land and 3 kilometers over the sea. The South Korean coastlines are 2, 413 kilometers in length. Korea Bay and the Yellow Sea are located at the west coast while the east coast is named as the Sea of Japan by the United Nations and the United States Board on Geographic Names. The group of islets at the east coast of the country called Tokto, has been a subject of a long time territorial dispute with Japan (“Country Profile: South Korea,” 2005).

    Around 70% of the Korean land area is covered with hills and mountains. Low landforms are located in the southern and western parts while higher mountain terrains are in northern and eastern locations. The T’aebaek (“Spine of Korea”) range runs north-to-south along the east coast. On the other hand, the Sobaek in the southwest of the country runs northeast-to southwest. The Mount Hallasan volcano, 1, 950 m above the sea level, at Cheju Island in the southeastern coast of the peninsula is the highest mountain in the country. South Korea’s major rivers includes: Naktonggang, 525 km in length, is the longest river; Han’gang, 514 km, runs through Seoul; and the Kumgang which is 401 km long. These rivers irrigate approximately 70% of rice fields in the country and have a crucial role in the development of portal cities (“Country Profile: South Korea,” 2005).

    The climate of South Korea is characterized by long cold and dry winters and short sultry summers that used to bring late but heavy monsoon rains. The average mean temperature of Seoul is –3.5° C in January and 25° C in July. The average rainfall is higher than 1, 000 mL, two-thirds of which fall between June and September. Cheju Island has a warmer weather than ay parts in the country. Once in every 8 years, droughts may occur in the southwestern parts (“Country Profile: South Korea,” 2005).

    South Korea’s population was reported as 48,598,175 in July 2004. The growth rate is estimated to be at 0.6% and expected to be reduced to 0% in 2028. The percentage of South Koreans living in the urban areas is higher than 80%. Its population density is about 480 persons per km2. There are also South Koreans’ emigrations to China (1.9 M), United States (1.5 M), and around one million are living in Japan and in within the Soviet Union during the 20th century. The Korean population generally is homogeneous. About 20, 000 Chinese consists its ethic minority (“Country Profile: South Korea,” 2005).

    Korean Social Institutions

    There are different institutions that make up the social building blocks of Korea. Family ties have a vital essence to the Koreans. There are cases that kinships are established for over 500 years. The actions of each family member are tied to the actions of the whole family. The father acts as the head and bread winner of the family. The eldest son, as bounded by tradition, has responsibilities first to his parents, then to his bothers, to his sons, then to his wife, and lastly to his daughters. Historically, to ensure clan preservation, families desire to produce many children and most of the time, several clans live together (“South Korea-Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette,” n.d.).

    In these social institutions, familial relations and educational system, the role of the men is always pronounced. The eldest male was the supreme authority who has unquestionable ruling. It was understood then that the patriarch of the family would be fair in all decisions (“South Korea-Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette,” n.d.). The women, on the other hand are also given distinct roles in the society. Although Korean women show compliance to the decisions of their husbands, in aspects such as income budgeting, their judgments are given more importance. In the traditional society, they are given less formal education (“South Korea,” n.d.). Christian missionaries established the pioneering schools for women such as the famous women’s institution, Ehwa Woman’s University (“Education/Literacy in Korea,” n.d.). This institution, established by Methodist missionaries, began as a primary school in 1886 and elevated into university status in 1945. By 1987, women accounted for 28% of the enrolment and there were 10 higher educational institutions for them.

    Historically, Koreans valued learning although access to formal education was only established at the end of Korean War. Only 20% of Koreans have received formal education in 1945. The 1968 charter identified the role of education in citizenship and made it compulsory through the ninth grade. Their school system has a 6-3-3-4 ladder pattern: the elementary level is a six-year compulsory education for children with ages 6 to 11; the middle school provides lower secondary education to 12 to 14 aged learners; high school caters three years of higher secondary education to 15 to 17 aged students; and high school graduates may then continue to pursue their chosen career in a junior college, college or university. The literacy rate in Korean is very high with is 98% (“Country Profile: South Korea,” 2005).

    In the field of legal system, the constitution of the 6th Republic was approved in 1987 and became effective in February 1988.  In accordance with this constitution, the president is directly elected by the people for a five-year term. In the same manner, the 224 out of 299 members of the National Assembly are chosen for a 4-year term and the rest are appointed by political parties (“Country Profile: South Korea,” 2005). As a Republican, the powers are shared by the president, the legislature, and the courts (“Background Note: South Korea,” 2008). The president is the head of the state and commander in chief of the armed forces. He appoints a prime minister in approval of the National Assembly and the heads of the 17 ministries which manage the state’s affairs. The National Intelligence Service and the Board of Audit and Inspection are also directed by the president. The legislative body, the unicameral National Assembly, has a 100-day regular session but can be requested by the president for a 30-day special session. The assembly elects a speaker and two vice speakers who will serve for a two-year term. Supreme Court, appellate courts, local courts, and the Constitutional Court comprise the judicial branch.

    The legal system has elements of Anglo-American Law, continental European civil law, and Chinese classical thought (“Country Profile: South Korea,” 2005). South Korean political parties include Grand National Party (GNP); Democratic Party (DP), formerly known as United Democratic Party (UDP); Liberal Forward Party (LFP); Democratic Labor Party (DLP); and Creative Korea Party (CKP) (Background Note: South Korea, 2008). As discussed by Kim and Hwang (2002), after their liberation from Japanese occupancy in1945, large social, political and religious groups have been formed in the changing Korean society. Two groups established in 1983 and 1984 were directly and actively involved in advocary-oriented activities, namely the Association for Democratization Movement or the Minchungryun and the Association for Progress of Democratization or the Minchuhyup. There were also education and service-oriented organizations such as the Asan Foundation which was established in 1977 and Samsung Welfare Foundation which was established in 1989. These two educational organizations led the way in providing public goods and social services.

    In addition to these groups, various civic groups such women’s groups, consumer advocacy groups, and environmental activities also emerged in the early 1980s. During the democratic transition in 1985 to 1987, there were popular organizations for substantial funding such as Lawyers for a Democratic Society, the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), and the Citizen’s Coalition of Economic Justice (CCEJ). As described by scholars, the 90s decade in South Koreas was tagged as the “age of civil society” wherein different social organizations evolved as visible and independent entities that were separated from the state and the business sector.

    In terms of business, South Koreans prefer partners introduced by a third-party (“South Korea-Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette,” n.d.). However, the trust, partnership and respect are developed through constant social gatherings. South Koreans have great respect for such partnerships that they try their best to become as professional as possible by being careful to avoid offending their business counterparts. South Koreans, in order to impress their partners always dress up formally during business appointments and they don’t arrive late for meetings.

    Korean Religion and Aesthetics

    South Korea has a very diverse religious background, art and literature. Christianity and Buddhism are the major religions in South Korea. 47% of the population is comprised of Christians while 47% are Buddhists. Confucianism is practiced by 3% of the population, while the rest of the 1% believes in traditional religions such as Shamanism and Chondogyo (“Background Note: South Korea,” 2008).

    While religion had certainly affected the Korean way of life, the early Korean literature was mainly influence by Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism. South Korean crafts are expressions of their cultural heritage. Although they used images of gods as inspirations for the themes, in general, South Korean crafts reflected their rich culture and beliefs. Buddhist images and pagodas were the main themes of their artisans (“Korean Sculpture,” n.d.). The early Korean literature started as an oral tradition depicting love of nature and man (“Korean Literature,” n.d.). The poems referred to as hyangga, were written using the script type Idu, which was partially adapted from Chinese characters, are some of the earliest literary works. In the Koryo period, literary works emphasized Chinese classics for government service.

    Other great literary works were done during the Choson period. Mural paintings on walls of tombs of the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. – A.D. 668) were the earliest known Korean paintings. Buddhist influences were highly portrayed by temple murals and scroll paintings. After the Japanese occupation, western painting also became prevalent (“Korean Painting,” n.d.). Aside from paintings, engravings were also used during the earlier eras. Rock cravings called Pangudae found in a riverside cliff in Kyongsangbuk, were the oldest rock sculptures found (“Korean Sculpture,” n.d.).

    Their masterpiece can be classified based on the mediums used such as metal crafts, wood crafts, ceramics, glass, dyed and woven goods and other miscellaneous craftwork (“Korean Crafts,” n.d.).  The natural environment is a major element in Korean architecture as depicted by their Buddhist temples. The bracket system was used in palace and temple structures, and common houses were characterized by thatched roofs and heated floors called ondol (“Korean Architecture,” n.d.).

    Korean Living Conditions

    South Koreans are also typically concerned with living conditions and as such, this encompasses from dietary plans to medicinal practices, housing, recreation, clothing and national security to name a few. For the South Korean diet, plain or cooked rice with other grains is the usual main dish for the Koreans. It is accompanied with different side dishes based on regional and seasonal availability. Generally, Koreans love spicy foods. Seafoods are dominant in Korean dishes. Kimchi, a soaked and fermented cabbage, and rice is a common meal (“Food,” n.d.).

    On the other hand, the South Korean style for housing is very unique. Traditional rural abodes are one-story building, with mud-plastered wood walls, chimney, thatched rice straw roofs, and usually have dirt floor, bedroom, and living room in L or U-shaped arrangement. Urban areas lack distinct zones. Apartment complexes, commercial and residential buildings are everywhere (“Housing,” n.d.).

    In the field of medicine, South Koreans have made several discoveries across this field. Over the centuries, South Koreans have utilized acupuncture and herbal medicines to cure a variety of diseases. People have relied to these traditional forms of medicine until to 1980s because modern medicinal methods are very expensive. After the Korean War, the number of medical practitioners increased and so as the number of hospitals and medical clinics. However, this has not been the case in rural areas. And as such, the government since 1980s has been trying to implement medical and social security insurance programs for rural communities, civil servants, military personnel and teachers (“Public Health and Welfare,” 1990).

    Korean Language

    The Korean language is not very distinct. It has large similarity with the Japanese and Mongolian language; however, a lot of Chinese cognates are also present. The Seoul dialect is the basis of the modern Korean language. In 2000, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism established the Revised Romanization System of Korean to make their language compatible with computer and internet systems (“Country Profile: South Korea,” 2005). Learned class spoke Korean but read and wrote in Chinese. King Sejong devised hangul, a writing system, for those who can not read classical Chinese. In addition, English is also taught as a second language in most primary and secondary schools (“Background Note: South Korea,” 2008).


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