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Morals in Korea

Posted on the 27 May 2012 by Smudger @ChristopherSm73
It is easy to travel to new places and become uncomfortable with a culture that is very different to your own.  This happened to me in the first year that I lived in Korea.  These days, I understand much more about what is going on and I can accept, without having my mind blown too greatly, why people are doing what they do and calmly deal with it.  Just recently, however, this greater level of understanding is not helping with some of the moral issues that appear to be continually cropping up, and I'm starting to become a little annoyed about them.
At this juncture, I should add, that as far as my own personal treatment is concerned I have very little to complain about.  It is on the behalf of others that my patience of your average Koreans' moral behavior is starting to wear pretty thin.  Their moral compass is highly influenced by Confucian group culture, with social cohesion being the greatest ideal.  They have a duty to others and this is expressed in their behavior.  Sounds great, but this duty doesn't stretch as far and wide as it should. It tends to sit mainly within small groups, such as family, friends, and work colleagues, others can quickly become outside of the group and therefore their moral sphere.
Korean people are amazingly honest, but surprisingly mainly to strangers and not to their own family. In the family setting lying to parents appears to be far more tolerable than being honest with them in a disagreement.  In my experience with my parents in-law, they would much rather be lied to, even if they really knew it was a lie, than face up to the truth that someone in their family wasn't going to do what they wanted.  For an example of this, when I went to Indonesia in the winter it was over Korean New Year, an important time of year.  It was, however, the only time I could go away and I wasn't about to lose the opportunity to travel.  My wife told me that her parents wouldn't allow me to go at Korean New Year.  My response to my wife was something along the lines of, 'that's funny because I wasn't asking them, I will go if I want to, simple as that.'  My wife, knowing that I would never back down and her parents demanded their family be together over New Year, concocted a bit of a porky pie and told her parents that I was visiting my family in England.  This they would accept because of the importance of family in Korean culture.  So, I went to Indonesia and all was fine and they didn't even ask about my highly tanned skin on returning (a very odd occurrence for England in January). My guess is they might of half-known that it may have been all an elaborate ruse, but the power of denial is a very strong force in Korea.
The above tale shows essentially some of what is different about or cultural values.  In Korea they value respect and status, and in England people value honesty, fairness, and freedom.  This is a great example of how clashes can happen.  I value freedom and the ability to choose what I want to do and when I want to do it, I am never going to allow someone to not allow me to do something.  My parents in-law value respect and could never allow me to leave the family behind on such an important occasion for my own selfish reasons, it would not be respectful to them as parents.
Because respect, social cohesion, and status within the group is so important perhaps this is why they are so honest among strangers.  If you are going to lose your passport, wallet, or phone, do it in Korea and you will have an excellent chance of getting it back.  When wallets are lost in Korea most people put them in a mail box and then the postman gives it to the police.  The police then find you as everyone has an identity card.  I wonder if this is because everyone is genuinely kind in Korea, or whether it is because of a social duty and stealing, found out or not, would lower a Koreans' status in society as their duty was not performed.  This great concern for how one is perceived within society is also a major factor in the apparent lack of a class system here.  I live in the cheapest apartments in my city and no one there appears to be any different from anyone else and I rarely have any problems.  If I lived in the same kind of area in England, I am sure the 'chav' population would be in such great numbers, that I would be regularly bothered by them in a great number of idiotic ways.
Duty plays a massive role in Korean culture and its effects can be seen on a daily basis.  So many people live out their daily lives doing things they really don't want to do, seeing people they don't want to see, and being nice to people they really don't like.  They are constantly holding back their frustrations and putting a good face on things.  This is something, even though I am quite a patient man, I cannot do for any length of time and I find that although sometimes friends and family in my country can consider me quite aloof and unemotional at times, in Korea, like a bad poker player, I am constantly showing my hand.  If I am bored, tired, angry, upset, amused, or frustrated, despite what I thought previously about my good self-control, it apparently is written all over my face and I do a lousy job of covering it up.  I would hate to play a Korean at poker, they must be awesome at it.
My impatience, and the fact that I am not Korean and somewhat outside the normal sphere of acceptable group behaviour, does get me out of a great many duties and works to my advantage so I am not about to change anything.  I have an awful feeling that many Korean people live their whole lives under the dictatorship of their duties and rarely truly do what they want to do with their lives.  I often feel very sorry for them.  From about the age of 16, when they start high school, they have so many responsibilities (family duties especially) that if they were to go off their family's plan for them and travel, or have their own ideas about business or life in general, they would be scorned for being selfish.
On the surface of things, all is well in Korea and in many respects there seem to be far less problems in society because most people do what they are supposed to do and fall in line.  Underlying this, though, there is a troubling problem.  I am regularly shocked by the heartlessness of Korean people.  I believe this is caused because Koreans have a set way of doing things and duties to perform and anything or anyone that goes outside the normal line of duty is largely ignored or deplored.
Koreans are especially unsympathetic to work colleagues that show a glimmer of individual thinking. I documented this in my first blog, which was more of a rant on my wife's unfair treatment at work.  I am going to comment on a couple of recent incidents that have confirmed what I already thought about Korean culture, that it lacks an ability to empathize with people (and animals) and that because of this the their culture, and the culture of the Far East in general, is ultimately going to be morally inferior to that of the West (not just different, inferior).  Western societies have their problems for sure, but I think people genrally care more genuinely because of their ability to empathize with others based on an individual assessment of the world, instead of a group vision of it.
Far Eastern people in general can treat anyone or anything perceived as outside the group or ideal rather shabbily and even brutally sometimes.  This holds true on a small scale like people who don't fit in at work or school, and mistreatment of pets, to rather large scale matters such as major animal rights abuses, the ultimate totalitarian regime in North Korea, and human rights abuses in China.  I believe that even the crimes of Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin can be explained well through the culture of valuing the group over the individual, encouraging our natural tendency to tribalism.  Many religious people attribute the above to a lack of belief in god, but surely if they were to travel to this part of the world they could understand that there is a massive difference between your average Western atheist and Eastern atheist.  Their values and ways of thinking are completely different (and how can a lack of belief motivate you to do something?).  A Western person values their freedom the most, and a Far Eastern person tends to value their status within the group the most.  An over-simplification this maybe, but it has an effect of explaining an awful lot of the differences between the cultures.
Below:  Portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.  How can such a regime come about?  Are the core values of North and South Koreans so different?  I see worrying similarities between the dictatorship of North Korea and the behavior of some people, families, and especially many workplaces in South Korea.
Morals in Korea
I have already mentioned the major isuues involved with this way of thinking.  There are also some smaller things that seem to be a part of everyday life:  Racism is a big problem, and any mixed race children or children from a different race other than Koreans, can have huge difficulties at school as they reside firmly outside the 'pure Korean blood' group and therefore often seem outside of moral consideration.  Domestic violence also appears to be a problem.  Anyone living in my area in Suncheon may well have heard some blood-curdling screams lately coming from a nearby apartment; it turns out that they were from my wife's friend in an apartment over the other side of the street, who had been going through an abusive relationship with her boyfriend.  My first reaction was to call the police for concern for her safety, but thought their next door neighbours might have done it.  My wife said, however, that Koreans always stay out of such matters and the police are rarely concerned and usually just tell the woman to calm down and leave them to it (if they are bothered at all).  Trust me, if you had heard the sound of the scream at 7am on a Sunday, you would have been concerned, but it seemed as if the whole street wasn't.  Recently, because of a few cases of domestic violence turning to murder, police have been encouraged to take these matters a little more seriously.  When we called the police, they showed up and talked to my wife's friend and them left them fairly swiftly, despite the fact her boyfriend was hammered drunk.  Watching from across the street at our own apartment they didn't even go in the apartment and appeared to only speak to her.
Animal cruelty also appears quite widespread here, with various major and minor instances rearing their ugly head from time to time.  A fairly recent incident involved how the Korean government decided to deal with a minor outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the pig population.  They decided to cull over a million pigs in the most disgusting way possible; they tipped them all into pits, on top of each other, and buried them alive (thousands at a time).  I have a video of this below, fast forward to about 2 minutes, and be warned it is painfully disturbing and upsetting.

It is worth mentioning the dog-meat trade also in Korea, which is technically illegal here, but not too many people bat an eye-lid when they see dog meat served in restaurants and when dogs are seen on trucks in tiny cages.  Most people don't eat dog-meat in Korea, especially the young, but there is not enough collective public outrage against the illegal dog-meat trade, so nothing is done about it.  Many Koreans are still in favour of eating dog-meat will give the argument that pigs are a similar animal in intelligence and we eat them.  This is only a slightly valid argument, as the dogs in Korea are kept in appauling conditions and they tend to have a nasty habit of beating them to death because they rather strangely and cruely think that doing this improves the flavor of the meat.  One does also worry about a culture that can mistreat a valued and close friend of the human species for thousands of years.  If they can treat our closest animal allies in this way, then there is a slippery slope argument that says this could slide its way down to mistreatment of people too.
Morals in Korea
There have been two articles on the news lately of dogs been tied to the back of cars and dragged down the street, with one dog dying as a result.  Generally speaking, the treatment of their pets is not up to the standards we in the west would consider acceptable.  If I was in England, I would have reported numerous people to the RSPCA (Royal Society for Protection of Cruelty to Animals), even one of my uncles in-law, whose poor dogs are chained up outside their house with little shelter in all weather and, as far as I can tell, never walked or allowed to explore anything other than the view of the house for their whole life.
It would, of course be wrong of me to suggest that all Koreans don't care about abuses such as this, but it shouldn't be wrong to point out that there is an undercurrent of heartlessness for such instances generally in this part of the world, and although not exclusive to this part of the world, there does appear to be more problems here.
I am obviously not suggesting that all Far Eastern people are bad (I wouldn't have married one if I thought that) and I am also not suggesting that all Western people are good and that we don't have moral issues in our culture.  I cannot help but point out, however, that frank discussions about morals, a tradition of questioning authority, and generally standing up for the vulnerable in society, appear to be making greater strides in Western culture, we have come further and are the world leaders in this department.  Many of whom stand up for the rights of others are ignored by government, and we do have a disturbing gap between the rich and the poor, and still ignore much of the third world, but moral progress is being made.  I don't see such marked moral progress in the Far East and I am concerned that, because of the fundamentals of their culture, even as they become richer, more highly educated and powerful they will continue to be slightly reticent in defending the rights of others when they exist outside of their community and sometimes even the ones inside it too.  The USA are often scorned by the rest of the world for being a super-power but for all their faults and those of other major Western countries, can we really imagine the world being a better place if the countries of the Far East dominate the world and become super-powers themselves?  At this moment moral standards in South Korea, and the Far East generally, still have a long way to go.

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