South Korea is one of the most collectivist societies in the world

배민 / 2020-03-09 / 조회: 1,289

일년 전 겨울 '한국의 집단주의'에 대한 주제로 GEO 잡지 기자와 인터뷰를 한 적이 있었다. 그 인터뷰 내용은 2019년 3월호 프랑스어판 '유교에 경도된 사회에 대한 심층해부 - 한국'이라는 특집 기사에 쓰였는데, 기사가 나가기 두 달여 전 Sébastien Falletti 기자와 인터뷰했던 내용을 아래에 게재한다. 영어로 이루어진 서면 인터뷰였으며, 기자의 질문에 내가 대답하는 형식이다.


이에 앞서, 본인의 엉성한 영어 문장을 굳이 번역하지 않고 개제함을 양해 바란다. 하지만, 영어로 글을 작성하던 당시 한국 사회를 최대한 객관적으로 바라보고자 애쓰던 나의 시점을 지금 와서 영작보다 더 엉성한 나의 번역실력으로 제대로 옮기기도 힘들겠다는 생각이 들기 때문이다. 참고로 GEO는 유럽에서 프랑스어 등으로 발행되는 월간지로, 영어권 잡지 중 National Geographic과 그 성격이 매우 흡사하다. 기사가 개제된 작년 3월호는 GEO 창간 40주년을 기념하는 특별판이었으며 한국이 특집주제로 다루어 졌었다.

(기사 링크: https://www.geo.fr/voyage/coree-du-sud-immersion-dans-une-societe-petrie-de-confucianisme-195436)



1. Would you say that Korea is one of the most collective society in the World? (대한민국이 세계의 문화들 중 집단주의가 제일 강한나라라고 생각하십니까?)


Although the concept of collectivism has been confusingly used, I think that South Korea is certainly one of the most collectivist societies. I think that individuals of individualist society are more responsible for their own decisions, whereas individuals of collectivist society tend to care more about the eyes of other members in their groups.



2. What are the key factors behind this? (이 대중문화 뒤에 어느 요소가 제일 작용이 큽니까?)


South Korea, despite its advanced technologies with fast online networks, is still fundamentally exclusive society, and its exclusivity has an emotional, rather than physical, form. So, political rhetoric and cultural identification have special meanings, and media plays powerful roles in Korean society.


This collectivist feature based on its exclusivity appears most clearly today as a form of blind nationalism or unrealistic expectation on democracy. Indeed, regarding democracy, many South Koreans tend to heroicise the direct voices of the mass in collective protests. They believe that their emotional voices should be urgently taken care of by their president, as they were by their kings in the past. In comparison, institutions and processes, such as parliament and election, often play secondary roles.



3. What are the historical roots of this phenomenon? What about the role of confucianism? (이 문화 뒤에는 어떠한 역사적 근원이 있습니까? 그리고 유교사상은 어떤 역할을 합니까?)


Many South Koreans regard North Korea as abnormal or ridiculous society, but few of them realise that it is rather North Korea that inherited the spiritual and philosophical identity of the nation in Korean history. Particularly, the striking similarities between North Korea and Joseon dynasty come mainly from their strong collectivism.


Koreans have obeyed the totalitarian dictatorship of a single dynasty for about five hundred years until the late 19th century. The social control which enabled the obedience was based on not only physical threats or abuses but also the manipulation of language and thinking. Confucianism, which was aimed at maintaining self-sufficient agricultural economy, was used by the learned elites to suppress any individualistic economic motivations in markets.


Koreans, who had lived hundreds of years under such collectivistic social confinement, internalised the social strategy of collectivism. In both societies (Joseon and North Korea), peoples' minds were completely controlled not only by the central elite groups who set up the collectivist social frames, but also by the support from people themselves. For instance, people during the Joseon era learned and followed the elites' paternalistic language, such as 民本主義, which is conceptually not much different from 民主主義 (translated as democracy). In such a situation, any attempts for social reform and efforts for individual self-improvement were hardly institutionalised to a meaningful extent. 



4. How important has been the Japanese occupation in this respect? (일본의 한국 통치는 중요한 요소였습니까? 얼마나 중요합니까?)


During the Japanese occupation, the concepts of civil right and civil law were introduced to Korean society. Through such a process, Koreans could have learned the core of the civil right concept, which is self-responsibility of an individual person. Western history shows that the civil right concept was developed from the recognition of defective human nature as part of human interaction and it was used to protect individuals as well as stop such defective humans from harming one another. 


But, most Korean independence activists and elite intellectuals under the Japanese rule were socialists or nationalists and were so strongly against any Japanese systems that they ignored such a philosophical essence of individualism. This hostility among Koreans against the Japanese political and social influences continued after the liberation from Japan, as a result, the concept of individualism, in South Korea, is severely retarded and distorted, often being regarded as self-centered immorality.   



5. Do you see any fundamental change from the new generation of Koreans? (젊은 세대층 사이에서는 눈에 띄는, 근본적인 변화가 있다고 보십니까?)


It seems obvious that the era is gone in South Korea when the government directly took the initiative in leading collectivist projects, such as the promotion of three behavioural virtues of “diligence, self-help and collaboration” during the 1960s to 80s. Considering the weak individualism in Korea, it seems natural that young people today feel more comfortable within the collectivist social atmosphere. They tend to expect governmental efforts or complain about social systems rather than introspecting their own efforts and decisions. Particularly during the past few decades, they have been substantially influenced by the predominant nationalist and socialist views among academia and media, both of which are closely related to collectivist social strategies.



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