[Column] The exclusionary nature of S. Korea’s hierarchical social structure

Posted on : 2019-11-17 15:16 KST Modified on : 2019-11-17 15:16 KST
Socially integrating outsiders will become crucial to the country’s longevity

I met the couple 20 years ago in Seoul. The road they had traveled was an unusual and tragic one. He was a North Korean prodigy who had graduated from Kim Il-sung University. Traveling to the Soviet Union as an exchange student in the 1980s, he met a Russian woman and fatefully fell in love. Since 1962, North Korea had prohibited international marriages in most cases. After struggling between love and country, he finally chose the former. At that time, the Soviet Union was beginning to fall apart, and he was able to travel to Seoul by way of the West to go through the defection and settlement process. Armed with a flawless command of Russian and IT skills, he immediately enjoyed success assembling engineers from the former Soviet Union to establish a venture business. South Korea’s conservative newspapers touted him at home and abroad as a “model among defectors,” a “ray of hope” who “sent the message to the world that South Korea is a land of opportunity.”

Yet I saw no trace of joy in the couple over achieving the “Korean dream.” To put it simply, they were utterly exhausted with life in South Korea. In contrast with most other defectors during the time after the Arduous March, they had not struggled economically. Yet they expressed that they could not bear life in South Korea any longer -- deeply wounded by a climate of exclusion, where any hint of the North Korean dialect drew funny looks. The mere knowledge of his North Korean origins resulted in him being treated as a “risk” and an “unusual element.” They had hoped to live as “ordinary people,” no different from others, rather than being treated as “defectors” or otherwise “abnormal.” Eventually, they “defected” from South Korea as they had from the North, settling down in another Western country.

Why does S. Korea isolate foreigners?

I would later hear that they were much happier living there, in a place where they held no connections in terms of blood or ethnicity, than they had been living in South Korea. While living in South Korea, the burden of watchful South Korean eyes had been so great that they had for the most part only consorted with fellow defectors or people from the former Soviet Union; it was only after moving overseas that they became integrated into their surrounding society.

I don’t know if South Korea’s failure to integrate people from North Korea can be explained through the influences of longstanding division and antagonism or a powerfully lingering “Communism complex.” But the question is: is society’s failure to integrate people from the outside restricted only to North Koreans?

I’ve met perhaps hundreds of foreigners in South Korean over the past two decades or so. Some of them have been ethnic Koreans from China, Kareisky from Central Asia, and North Koreans who had struggled economically or been forced to take on demanding labor. Other have been Americans and Europeans teaching at the elite “SKY” universities (Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University) who commanded large salaries and wanted for little. Some were vulnerable residents who had endured various human rights violations; others belonged to the middle class and had had a relatively easy time of things. What’s the one thing that all of them had in common, these outsiders in South Korea who were so diverse in terms of their financial situation, nationality, and ethnicity? Not one of them felt a sense of strong affiliation with South Korean society or believed their children and grandchildren could live there.

Even wealthy, elite Westerners feel isolated in S. Korean society

It may be more accurate to say that South Korean society has prevented them from harboring such ideas. Even people who are called “Professor” at one of the SKY schools, live in wealthy neighborhoods where real estate fetches astronomically high prices, and hold a coveted US passport will admit to feeling ill at ease. “At a Korean university, I’m there for display,” they will tell you. “I sense every day that I could end up being forced out at any time if the South Koreans in charge become displeased with me or decide they don’t need me anymore.” If that’s the feeling of a wealthy and highly educated person from a country with an influence on South Korea on par with a colonial motherland, how do you think South Korean society looks in the eyes of an Uzbek Kareisky working on a construction site, or a “Yanbian auntie” working at a restaurant?

We quite rightly criticize far-right politicians like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for fanning exclusionary hostility toward the countries of the Korean Peninsula. But in terms of the kind of social exclusion viscerally sensed by residents of foreign origin, the climate in South Korea is really quite close to Japan’s.

S. Korea, Japan’s modernization geared toward rich state and powerful military

South Korea and Japan are both regarded as the most successful examples globally of accelerated modernization -- yet what foreigners experience living there is not the openness of a “modern society,” but a very strong sense of insularity. What is the reason for this? Perhaps it is the same reason that South Korea and Japan are recognized as according women the lowest status in the industrialized world. In both South Korea and Japan, modernization was spearheaded by conservative vested interests, whose desired version of “modernity” is not one of human liberation but one of a rich state with a powerful military. And there was no room in that rich state and powerful military’s developmentalist plans for gender equality or openness to outsiders.

The kind of “reactionary modernism” seen in South Korea and Japan means that the reference groups for society are either the military or a state bureaucracy that is indistinguishable from the military. These bureaucratic groups are typically dominated by networks of elite university alumni who maintain the equivalent of family ties; by their very nature, these networks of elite university graduates bred for government politicians are not organizations capable of opening themselves readily to outsiders or truly practicing gender equality. Another major organization that has dominated modern society in both South Korean and Japan is the large corporation, run by veteran executives who hail from particular clans or rank high on the seniority hierarchy. Those organizations are never going to be open either. But is it only foreigners who end up being shut out?

Majority of people in S. Korea actually suffer some form of exclusion

Within the highly stratified organizational cultures of South Korea and Japan, it’s actually a select minority that doesn’t suffer exclusion, regardless of country of origin or nationality. Whether you’re a woman, someone without academic connections, not a member of a particular clan, a junior family member just arriving in your organization, or an irregular worker, you find yourself facing exclusion, various forms of harassment, and exploitation as an individual. In a system of reactionary modernity where equality is a structural impossibility, even insiders are lined up in a hierarchy, with those at the bottom subjected to exclusion and harassment. Imagine how much worse things must be for outsiders.

A hierarchical society without equality is bound to have next to no integrational ability. That’s why defections from North Korea continue to be echoed by “defections” from the South. As I already mentioned above, the exchange student from Kim Il-sung University who followed his heart and defected from North Korea wasn’t able to live in peace for a single day in South Korea despite his success there and eventually had to leave in search of equality and social integration. Without equality, or in other words the social habit of treating others as human beings and equal citizens even if they don’t have wealth or academic credentials, it will be even harder to turn transform Korea into a society that embraces people with a different physical appearance or a different-colored passport.

The prerequisites for integration into society are equality and the elimination of a sense of social hierarchy. And given Korea’s graying population and its low birth rate, social integration — which is to say the emergence of a society in which it is easy for immigrants to settle down and live in harmony for generations to come — is a key long-term challenge facing the Republic of Korea.

By Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov), professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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