How materialism unites the two Koreas, and divides them

Posted on : 2024-03-10 10:00 KST Modified on : 2024-03-10 10:16 KST
Differences between materialism in North and South Korea illustrate why they require different solutions
A woman tries on a jacket at an autumn garment fair held at Pyongyang’s Okryu Exhibition House on Nov. 9, 2023. (AP/Yonhap)
A woman tries on a jacket at an autumn garment fair held at Pyongyang’s Okryu Exhibition House on Nov. 9, 2023. (AP/Yonhap)

A friend who immigrated to a different country well over 10 years ago recently came back to South Korea for a visit. Despite having missed their mother country, they said that South Korea felt like a completely different place.
What had changed most was the people. Whomever they met, wherever they met, and whatever subject they talked about, everything led back to money, which made them dejected.
While most capitalist countries show similar tendencies, it is rare to see a country where money is both the golden standard by which one is measured and the end goal in life.
For example, in a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2021, South Korea was the only country out of 17 developed countries in which most people said that they find meaning in their lives through material well-being.
While those in other countries stated that the meaning of life came from a variety of factors, such as family, health, friends, freedom, faith and society, many South Koreans answered with “material well-being” as the sole reply.
This is what South Korean society has become: a society where everyone is driven by the desire for money, only to wallow in the anxiety that such obsession creates.
The necessity of money for survival
That same friend asked me if North Korea felt similar. Since North Korea has always been a socialist country, they assumed that money would not be its people’s top priority.
There’s another hidden question within that query, asking if North Korea, a country that is economically underdeveloped but relatively less competitive than South Korea, still cherishes the community and social values that South Korea seems to have discarded.
This demonstrates a tendency of many in South Korean society to romanticize North Korea as a society that may be poor, but still upholds communal values.
Whether North Koreans are materialistic is a question that should be inspected from various aspects. If you are asking if North Koreans use everything in their power to stock up on material goods to survive, then yes, North Koreans are very materialistic.
In a severely authoritarian state, North Koreans must build self-sustaining markets from scratch, evading the watchful eyes of those protecting the planned economy. As such, they become ruthless in their quest for money, as they are on a mission to survive.
North Korea’s ability to live through more than 70 years of confrontation with the US, the world’s biggest superpower, its worst food shortages in history, and unprecedented international sanctions is largely due to its people’s astounding self-sufficiency. North Koreans have experienced firsthand how important money is to survival.
However, if you define being materialistic as being in a state in which money defines one’s identity and meaning of life, then North Koreans are quite different from South Koreans. While they will do anything to make money, it doesn’t become the only factor that dictates their lives.
For example, a 2015 study by Yang Moon-soo, who surveyed North Koreans living in China about their materialistic tendencies, found that while North Koreans are more likely to believe that being well-off materialistically makes them happy, that does not serve as a measure of success.
In other words, while North Koreans value money, they think negatively of fetishistic behavior which prioritizes money over anything else.
The materialistic tendencies of North Koreans are deeply tied to their fragile environment, in which they are not even guaranteed economic survival and security.
It’s worth noting that political scientist Ronald Inglehart once defined the shift in values in Western societies as a shift from materialism to postmaterialism, noting the unprecedented lack of material security and physical safety between 1950 and 1970 as the socioeconomic conditions that drove this shift.
Inglehart empirically demonstrated that in societies where material security and physical safety are threatened, postmaterialist values (democracy, freedom and equality, human rights, ecology, etc.) are unlikely to be on the political agenda, whereas in Western societies that have undergone a post-materialistic value shift, a range of social issues beyond survival and security rise to the top of the political agenda.
Applying Inglehart’s analytical framework, we can conclude that North Koreans who are under threat of material survival and safety are bound to be immersed in materialistic values.
The reason North Koreans do not oppose the North Korean regime and rally for democracy is not simply due to the violent censorship and sanctions of the regime, but due to the fact that most North Koreans are focused on their own material security.

Anxious Koreans and the urgent need for a social safety net

The North Korean regime’s utilization of the public’s fear of external threats has stirred them into a frenzy of survivalist nationalism. The regime has exploited the threat of war to effectively militarize the entire country, and the North Korean people are focused exclusively on physical safety and survival. In the current situation, it’s nearly impossible for political participation or democratic ideals to surface as important issues. In times of crisis, the people have reverted to their traditional values: nationalism, convention, and the nuclear family. 

What’s more interesting are the values of South Koreans, who seem lost in their wanderings between materialism and postmaterialism. By all objective criteria, South Korea has achieved economic development, yet the people are still obsessed with material acquisition and physical survival — something more common among less developed countries. 

According to the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map 2023 (created by political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel), a visual model that maps cultural, social and religious values, South Koreans exhibit much higher levels of survivalism than their Western counterparts. Highly anxious about their material comforts and physical survival, South Koreans simply do not have the mental and emotional bandwidth to focus on postmaterialist issues like gender disparities, environmentalism, political liberty, and human rights. Not only do such issues fall politically flat, they fail to resonate among the public consciousness in any meaningful way. 

This context helps elucidate why postmaterialist — that is, abstract or philosophical —issues have basically disappeared from South Korea’s political dialogue leading up to this year’s general election. 

These inter-Korean differences illustrate why North Korea and South Korea require different solutions to overcome their respective attachments to materialism. In North Korea, people are starving for basic levels of material stability and physical safety. In addition to basic economic needs, they need to be free from the looming threat of war, violence and death. Conversely, South Koreans require more social stability to reduce their anxiety over physical and material survival. Education and the instillation of deeper social values are necessary to overcome the fetishistic idea that money is the only goal in life. 

If the two Koreas are ever reunited, money and wealth will definitely be key drivers behind the reunion. However, the exclusive focus on money leads to more conflict and division, more anxiety and desperation. Koreans on both sides of the 38th Parallel need to build social values outside money if inter-Korean relations are ever to evolve into a sustainable peace. 

In an era where people on both sides are shouting for an “every man for himself” approach to inter-Korean relations, we need to step back and take a few deep breaths while we closely examine the fundamental problems plaguing our respective societies. Only that will gradually place an out-of-reach peace within our grasp.

By Kim Sung-kyung, professor of North Korean society and culture at the University of North Korean Studies

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