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Tearing Down the Walls of Confucianism
[Opinion] There is value in a framework that allows for individual responsibility, merit and fault
Bernard Moon (bernard)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2008-03-06 06:03 (KST)   
On Feb. 25, Lee Myung-bak was sworn in as South Korea's new president amid a general sense of excitement and anticipation about whether he'll be able to fulfill his ambitious economic goals for the country.

Some of these goals are fueled by education policies that seek to increase the English-language proficiency of South Korea's citizens -- the impetus of which is to prepare Korea for a flatter world in which it will serve as a significant Asian financial and commercial hub.

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While I find these policies noteworthy, I also believe them to be premature -- needing, as they do, to at least coincide with (if not follow) an effort to liberate South Koreans from strict Confucian social structures and a collective thinking that hinders a majority of its citizens from being effective beyond their country's borders.

I began to ruminate on this last week while reading about South Korean politics and attending the Socrates Society Seminar on "Democracy in America" at the Aspen Institute.

A motley group, America's founding fathers were as diverse as possible for their time -- a fact that allowed for the brewing of new ideas, compromises and a continuation of the concepts that emerged during the Enlightenment and became a reality in this experimental new nation. Their fledgling democracy, however, was neither perfect nor complete, and its ideals of liberty faced a direct threat from issues of slavery and women's suffrage.

As a developing democracy and nation, South Korea faces a different kind of attack on its liberties than the United States did in its youth.

South Korea's Confucian value system creates behaviors that are more admirable than those found in Western societies in areas such as the treatment of its elderly; however, that same value system also creates inefficiencies and systems based on age rather than merit -- especially in the workforce. Young and mid-career corporate superstars and hardworking blue-collar workers are mostly ignored due to the Confucian hierarchies that strongly influence promotion and management decisions.

There has been a slow shift due to the technology boom of the late 1990s -- when Internet companies such as NHN and Nexon created flatter merit-driven cultures -- but the call for change needs to be greater.

The Rise of the Individual

South Korea's homogenous society and history have created a collective identity and thinking that limits their perspectives and thinking. Often called a "herd mentality" by outsiders, this type of thinking was on display when two schoolgirls were killed in 2002 by a US armored vehicle. Huge anti-American demonstrations revealed a collective mentality not present in the United States or other Western nations.

There was also an oddly critical voice against the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the United States and South Korea. (South Korea has stronger SOFA agreements between itself and other countries, which most South Koreans didn't know about.)

This same collective thinking came into play when Virginia Tech student Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people in a campus massacre. Many Koreans and Korean immigrants in the United States expected a backlash against Korea and Koreans living in the United States. Community leaders and South Korea's ambassador to the United States apologized and displayed their collective guilt -- actions that proved unnecessary since Americans didn't view the event as Koreans hurting or insulting the United States (as Koreans saw the incident that occurred in their country five years earlier).

While individualism can be carried to extremes in the United States -- and thus is often viewed as overbearing and unappealing to those from other cultures -- there is value in a framework that allows for individual responsibility, merit and fault. It allows for individuals to break away from the herd, become more creative and produce change on a greater scale -- something the collective mentality generally impedes.

One of the more frustrating phrases I've encountered while doing business in Korea over the past decade has been, "It's just the Korean way" -- in other words, just accept it -- in response to suggestions for improving common practices. As I tried to explain then -- and continue to explain today -- there is no "Korean way" or "American way," only a goal to find the best or most efficient way.

South Korea has come a long way in a short period of time to become the 13th largest economy in the world. Through the will of its people and their obsession with education and ingenuity, a number of world-class companies (such as Samsung and LG) have emerged from the country.

The overall impact of this small nation, however, can be even greater if long-term, thoughtful efforts are initiated to remove the bonds of some of its restrictive and narrow social structures and cultural framework. Only then can President Lee truly achieve his economic goals.
Bernard Moon is an entrepreneur and serves on the board of directors of the Mirae Foundation, a nonprofit that provides mentorship and empowerment of young Korean-American professionals and college students.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Bernard Moon

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