I began living in and writing about Korea, an endeavor in which I’ve now been engaged for years, with practically no academic preparation. After graduating university, I audited a few lectures on Korean popular culture, then tried to take community-college Korean 101, which ended up cancelled for lack of enrollment. Later, after moving to Los Angeles, I signed up for language courses at the Korean Cultural Center on Wilshire Boulevard. They formed a pyramid, the top being a modestly sized “advanced” level (though many of us could barely string a sentence together) and the bottom an introductory level popular enough to spread across multiple classrooms. Of the throng of beginners there, a large proportion seemed to have come to the language through love of Korean pop music and television dramas. Whatever our individual motivations, all of eagerly partook of the offerings of South Korea’s newly ascendant cultural empire.
Yet this empire isn’t quite as new as it seems. The Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles opened in 1980, as Keimyung University professor Seon Jung Kim notes in an academic paper on overseas Korean language education, and today there are 41 such centers in eighteen countries. That paper appears in the new Routledge Handbook of Contemporary South Korea, edited by Sojin Lim and Niki J.P. Alsford. Following previous Routledge “handbooks” on modern Korean history, Korean culture and society, Korean politics and public administration, and contemporary North Korea, it collects articles on the various aspects of the Republic of Korea studied by its contributors. As in most academic anthologies, these selections read as if included for their suitability as assigned reading in an undergraduate course — or rather courses, given the range from “Historical Development of Judicial Independence in South Korea” to “The South Korean Literary Field and Its Recent Evolution.”
Only a small minority of this book’s purchasers will thus read it as I did, from cover to cover. Doing so may not yield a clear single narrative of South Korea, but it does — despite the frequent changes of author, focus, and prose style, about which more later — yield a coherent image of South Korea. Here we have a modern nation that spent the early part of its life in hopeless-looking poverty: more than one contributor cites its GNP of the early 1960s, which was comparable to the that of Ghana or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But over the two or three decades thereafter, factors including shrewd use of aid and loans (primarily from the United States and former colonizer Japan) as well as even shrewder industrial policy turned it into one of the economic champions of Asia. Today, South Korea’s economy is the world’s 11th largest.
South Korea’s military, just as notably, is the world’s 10th largest. This fact speaks to the country’s geopolitical position, strongly allied with the distant and increasingly fickle superpower that is the United States of America while physically located between China, Japan, and North Korea. Thus, a large chunk of the Routledge Handbook of Contemporary South Korea is taken up by papers on South Korea’s relations with all of those nations. Much of the theoretical language used in this section do deal with the balance of power sounded familiar to me (if not always palatably) from my own college days, during which I studied nothing specifically Korean but did end up majoring in political science. Fresher is the category in which several contributors describe South Korea as having found itself: that of the “middle power.”
A power of this class, as Aston University’s Virginie Grzelczyk puts it, “is neither big nor small when it comes to capacity, population and influence,” but “can help with how the international system is being shaped.” Official Korea, as I like to call it, outwardly embraced this role in 2008 by launching a “Global Korea” strategy, but how or even whether the wealthy, well-armed Republic of recent decades has exerted its middling power on the international system remains a matter of debate. “The vagueness of the concept of middle power and the related lack of consensus around the sources, the characteristics and the performance of this international role have led to a lack of consensus also on what comprises the real effectiveness of South Korea’s middle power diplomacy and to what extent the country’s foreign policy has benefited from this strategy,” writes University of Bologna foreign-policy scholar Marco Milani.
Nevertheless, as a “strong democratic middle power,” argues Hankuk University of Foreign Studies’ Lonnie Edge, South Korea “as long outgrown its need to defeat North Korea, and narratives to this effect ring hollow among younger Korean voters, who fear the cost of absorbing North Korea.” As several of these papers frame it, relations with the North became the dominant political issue in South Korea at the division of the peninsula after World War II. So they remained until late in the 20th century, by which time the Republic of Korea had demonstrated its overwhelming economic superiority (an outcome far from obvious as recently as the 1970s) over the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Yet “South Korea’s identity still remains inexorably tied to its northern neighbor,” writes the University of Sheffield’s Sarah A. Son, and “this association continues to overshadow the South’s many independent achievements.”
Son may exaggerate slightly, but the North has arguably been the better-known Korea until just this past decade. In that time, as University of California, Berkeley’s Hannah Michell tells it, “the global visibility and mass recognition of South Korean hits such as Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style,’ the record-breaking popularity of idol group BTS, and director Bong Joon-ho’s Academy award success with the film Parasite” has conferred on the South the status of a “cultural powerhouse. Less visible or known, however, is how this powerhouse has been propelled by government investment.” The instrumentality of Official Korea in launching them is easily overstated (and high-profile incompetence in that department is hardly a thing of the past), but the fact remains that these global cultural phenomena really have made South Korea attractive to much of the world, their often harsh, even damning portrayals of South Korean society notwithstanding.
Michell writes that, despite Psy’s critique in “Gangnam Style” of the excesses of the wealthy, “the government’s willingness to accept this is evident in the use of the song at President Park Geun-hye’s inauguration.” Her father, former president Park Chung-hee, was “known to strictly censor pop culture,” but she herself “seemed to embrace the song despite its critical lyrics because of its global success.” The violent class-war satire of Parasite invites a reading as an even stronger condemnation — “those familiar with Korea’s history might catch the subtle significance of the Western architecture built atop a basement bunker necessitated by war” — but its “critical commentary has been softened in the service of something greater,” namely “a celebration of Korea’s dynamism in producing cultural content capable of achieving record-breaking success” — success per se, on which every sector of South Korean society can seem monomaniacally, almost debilitatingly fixated.
Nowhere is this obsession more obvious than in the realm of education, the subject of a paper by James Madison University’s Michael J. Seth. In that as in so many areas, South Korea has effected an astonishing transformation in a short span of time. “When the country was partitioned in 1945, fewer than half the adult population had any schooling at all, and only 5 percent had completed secondary school,” Seth writes. But “by the end of the second decade of the 21st century, South Koreans by some measurements were the world’s best-educated citizens,” with 80 percent of all high school graduates going on to higher education. This hasn’t come without costs, one being that “the very nature of South Korea’s education zeal, the drive for the highest and most prestigious levels of academic achievement possible, made it difficult to supply the actual skills needed for the economy.”
What’s worse, organization around a single college entrance exam has made the whole of South Korean education — and its attendant hypertrophied cram-school industry — look to increasingly many like “a wasteful system of status competition, placing enormous strains on young people for only modest returns.” On this level modern South Korea bears an troublingly strong resemblance to Korea under the Joseon Dynasty of the late 14th to early 20th century, when “a series of highly competitive examinations served as the means of selection for prestigious government positions” and elite families “devoted a great deal of energy and expense to education and examination preparation.” For all the promises every incoming administration makes about education reform, few complaints have been effectively addressed, and worries persist of society becoming “dominated by a hereditary elite like the one that characterized premodern Korea.”
To a country like South Korea, for which rapid economic development was an existential matter within living memory, the fear of backsliding would be hard to overstate. Much of the arrogance fueled by the country’s initial success had to have died out in 1997, when the International Monetary Fund provided the country with a bailout loan in exchange for enacting severe austerity reforms. (This was a local consequence of the wider Asian financial crisis, but Koreans tellingly refer to the period simply as “IMF.”) The 2014 sinking of the MV Sewol, in which 350 died, wasn’t the first incident to raise questions about whether the country had really emerged from what used to be called the third world. It also put on terrible display the consequences of the modern phenomenon University College Cork’s Kevin N. Cawley labels “Corrupt Confucianism.”
The captain of the Sewol, Cawley writes, displayed a “complete lack of the moral responsibility associated with Confucian ethics,” which had supposedly done so much to hold Korean society together. So did President Park Geun-hye, who “neglected to fulfill her moral duties in the aftermath of the Sewol tragedy, which to all intents and purposes seriously eroded the legitimacy of her mandate to rule.” This did its part to inspire the 2016 street protests that demanded, and ultimately exacted, her removal from office; so did the revelation of Park’s reliance on a hitherto unknown individual named Choi Soon-sil, who as Park’s confidant “had free access to classified government documents, edited Park’s public speeches and coached her secretaries, without any official position.” So writes Sogang University’s Dae-oup Chang, who also that “Park had offered various favors to chaebol in exchange for their investment in unknown foundations run by Choi.”
Few Korean Studies courses could provide an accurate picture of the South Korean economy, or indeed South Korean history and culture, without mentioning chaebol, the large family-run conglomerates like Samsung, Hyundai, Lotte, and CJ. “Chaebol dominance of the South Korean society and market is truly remarkable,” write Ewha Womans University’s Eun Mee Kim and Nancy Y. Kim. “Their large footprint — ranging from mobile phones, semi-conductors, automobiles, and ready-made food products to entertainment, hotels, department stores, insurance, and hospitals — makes it impossible to live in South Korea without accessing their products or services for even a day or two.” These vast aggregations of enterprise are often resented, but having driven the country’s development, also regarded with a kind of awe: the question of which entity is more powerful, Samsung or the South Korean government, doesn’t produce much in the way of honest debate.
Most South Koreans seem to have made their peace with this arrangement; many “vie for the prestige of becoming an employee of a chaebol member firm while deriding the hierarchy and elitism of the chaebol.” But some prominent figures have aired complaints. “Filmmakers like Hong Sangsoo have blamed the squeezing out of non-commercial mainstream film on the dominance of oligopolies in the Korean market,” writes Monash University’s Andrew David Jackson. This dominance has intensified since the Asian financial crisis, which devastated small businesses but left successfully restructured chaebol with greater market share. “Although they were initially involved in distribution, they have come to monopolize exhibition through their control of multiplexes and have now also expanded into film production.” The stamp of the chaebol is also all over Korean television dramas, another medium employed, writes Michell, to “disseminate favorable images of Korea and Koreans to the rest of the world.”
The rest of the world has paid favorable regard to these images — or at least much of the world, to some of the images. But however impressive South Korea has become, its society has shown a dispiriting tendency toward dominance by controlling elites, themselves sometimes given to venality and ineptitude. Critically minded South Koreans thus insist that their outwardly robust country remains “politically backward” (or some such formulation), but the same condition also extends to business, education, culture, religion, and beyond. That, in any case, is the impression collectively given by the papers of the Routledge Handbook of Contemporary South Korea, most of which gesture at a need for reform in their area without coming to a definitive conclusion about it. Such hollowness is a vice of academic writing, as is the jargon that accretes around it: why simply convey information on a subject when you can “problematize” it?
Distance from the contortions of Western academia is one advantage of expatriate life in South Korea, come though it does with frustrations of its own. Foreigners working here quickly tire of the phrase “Please understand our unique situation,” deployed as it is to excuse every unreasonable request or inconvenience. All the more frustrating to realize, reading analyses such as these, that South Korea’s situation — developmentally, geopolitically, demographically, culturally — is indeed unique. And in the years since Routledge began publishing handbooks on Korea, it’s only become more intriguing as South Korea’s cultural empire has grown in ways nobody would have predicted. Like every empire, it does show occasional signs of strain (BTS, now in effect South Korea’s pop-cultural ambassadors, have of late turned to singing good-time anthems in English), but the next generation of Korean Studies majors can rest assured that, whatever happens, at least they won’t be bored.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.