The Iron Law of Korean Thinking
Upon my first arrival in Korea for a 10-month stint teaching at Kyungbook National University (Daegu), way back in 1995-96, I quickly recognized the hierarchical nature of Korean society. I'm not claiming any great insight, for one need not be a genius to figure it out. The social fact immediately hits every newcomer in the face.
Why? Because it's visible in every human interaction in Korea, even down to minor differences of status. Granted, no society is completely egalitarian, but when a university student one year older is a "senior" who can order his one-year-younger "junior" to do some specific task and actually get results, then the hierarchy is fine-grained and pervasive.
Being trained as a historian, and having an interest in international relations, I wondered if Korea's social hierarchy extended to foreign relations.
I had reason to suspect that it did. At the government offices where I went to get my alien resident's card, I observed that whereas Western foreigners were treated with respect, non-Western foreigners were dealt with as people lower in hierarchical ranking. I inferred that this might be a reflection of how Koreans perceived the status of various states. But what I was observing was still within Korea and characterized by face-to-face, personal interactions. So, I couldn't be certain that it extended outside of Korea to relations with other states.
I had further evidence, however. I often heard Korean acquaintances remark that "Korea has to do what America wants." I heard it often enough that I began to wonder why. I had not heard Germans speak that way, despite their recognition of America's power and status in the world. So, I asked why. Most answers initially referred to America's economic and military power and mentioned the U.S. military bases in Korea.
"Yeah," I thought, "same as in Germany, but Germans never seemed to think like Koreans."
I asked further and then heard Koreans say that America demands that Korea carry out policies in American interests. But when I asked about specific demands, I could see from the wording that American requests were being interpreted as demands.
"But these are requests," I would point out. "So, why not just say no?"
The response to this was that America puts pressure on Korea to do what it wants.
"What pressure?" I would ask.
At that point, responses became quite vague: dire fears about the unarticulated 'things' that America would do. Or I was told that I was naive to think that Korea could say no to such a powerful country. Those sort of responses.
My retort: "Germany often said no. Nothing terrible happened."
So, what I had was a lot of anecdotal evidence that Koreans perceive foreign relations much as they perceive social relations: There is a hierarchy of seniors and juniors, and juniors had better do what the seniors demand . . . or else.
I called this (half in irony): "The iron law of Korean thinking."
Now, Korea University Professor Kim Kyung-won, former ambassador to the United States, confirms it. In his article "Balance is not just about power" (Joong Ang Daily, Wednesday, April 20), Professor Kim states:
"In international relations, Korea traditionally has pursued a policy of acknowledging the order of rank and hierarchy that starts with China at the top, rather than a policy of 'balance.' Korea could not imagine equality among countries, and international order was thought to mean a system of rank and hierarchy just like domestic order. The European idea of national sovereignty is unfamiliar to Asian countries. We never imagined that countries could claim to have equal rights.
Korea followed the pattern of traditional international relations even in the latter half of the 20th century. The only difference was that China, which was at the top of the hierarchy, was replaced by the United States. The logic of the system was the same as when China was at the top, in that the United States was the new superpower and suzerain state in all international relations."
How long will this iron law hold sway? That's hard to judge. Korea has changed a lot in the past generation. It's democratic, and younger people are more aware of foreign cultures. Many Koreans have studied and worked abroad. Also, many foreigners now live and work in Korea, bringing their ways with them. In particular, foreign English teachers are inculcating different ways of thinking in their students simply by teaching a foreign language -- and at the student level, I do see radical changes. No student these days avoids stepping on my shadow.
So . . . Korea might be learning to say "No" to America. Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that President Roh's name is really pronounced "Noh."
But I fear that Korea may be starting to say "No" to America because it's starting to say "Yes" to China.