Time for Korea to focus on social development

By Vaticanus/flikr. A boy in Korea 1950. Reproduced under CC2.0
Sebastian Auger
Written by Sebastian Auger
It’s fair to say South Korea polarizes opinion within the expat community. As a foreigner, you instinctively brand alien codes of conduct as ‘weird’ and it takes some time to retrain yourself to regard things as simply ‘different’.

Being open minded is good, but after embracing new concepts for a while you have the right to your opinion. On occasion it will settle back on your initial gut reaction of ‘this is weird’ or ‘this is wrong’.

It’s through my adult English debate class that I have learned the most about the social conditioning that has taken place on this peninsula.

My students have ranged from 18 year olds preparing for exams to, most interestingly, well traveled and educated 50, 60, 70-plus year olds, who simply attend classes for the social aspect.

It’s been a pleasure, honor and education for myself, to teach these people.

This experience helped me contextualize feelings about Korea, creating an insight I believe to be more credible than the many impulsive and reactive opinions, forged on isolated negative experiences.

The contrast between the modern city and antiquated morality is startling. It feels as though it’s archaic values are being preserved by a stubborn society, which simultaneously supports and resents itself.

Korea has been a one-race nation for so long, only recently attracting a substantial number of foreign settlers, and naturally there have been teething problems.

These issues will continue, gradually ironing themselves out, but one thing that needs to be introduced immediately and without hesitation, is an Anti-Discrimination Law. Korea currently doesn’t have one.

The implications of this are enormous and are directly linked to issues with foreigners settling here, as well as Korean natives unhealthy focus on appearance, both physically and in terms of conformity to the ideal.

There is a huge stigma attached to the disabled and those with mental health issues as well as divorce being taboo – anything other than the nuclear family is unacceptable.

The handicapped are often put out of sight and those trapped in a loveless or abusive marriage are to remain pleasantly married, for appearances sake.

Confucianism is a key reason why Seoul is one of the safest cities in the world, with low crime rates testament to this.

However, components of this ideology have not translated well into the 21st century, and have resulted in some disturbing side effects.

“Confucianism dictates that it is bad to stand out – condemning the boastful – but what if you can’t help standing out?”
Confucianism dictates that it is bad to stand out – condemning the boastful – but what if you can’t help standing out?

What if you are fatter than ‘the norm’, or your eyes are too small, or your face is too round?

The answer is, change it, and the Korean media unscrupulously rams this message down their throats.

In this patriarchal society, women are valued by their appearance, and the shelf life of Korean women is alarmingly short – making them desperate to extend it by whatever means necessary.

Everything looks fine, as people pass by, industriously buzzing past, weaving between towering buildings, walking along immaculate streets.

After while, however, you sense that something is not right, something is uniting yet dividing the society.

“Koreans are enslaved by their social ethics”
This next statement may sound a bit alarming, but it’s become very apparent to me over the last few months – Koreans are enslaved by their social ethics.

Koreans work notoriously long hours. The general consensus from my class was that in their 10-12 hour work days they are only productive for about 3 hours. The rest of the time is procrastination and energy preservation – but it’s important that they look like they’re doing work over long periods of time, which often extend into a 6th day.

Koreans who aren’t completely established at their company are reluctant to take their full-entitled holiday leave, as it would damage their reputation.

This makes for a very tired, stressed out and tightly wound community.

It should be unsurprising then that, coupled with the fact it’s the plastic surgery capital of the planet, Korea also has the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world.

A large number of the annual suicides are students, who crack under the pressure of their extensive studies and parental demand to get into the select few elite Universities.

“Korea’s ascent up the economic charts hasn’t been matched in their social development.”
Korea’s ascent up the economic charts hasn’t been matched in their social development. Over the centuries, what qualifies as a ‘civilized’ society has changed and evolved over the years.

Would we deem America in the 1950/60’s a civilized society by today’s standards, with its abhorrent racism and discrimination? Of course not.

In a similar fashion, South Korea cannot be deemed a civilized society, judged by 21st century standards, considering a lack of an Anti-Discrimination Law, inadequate welfare and fervent social discontent which leads to a reported 28 people per 100,000 taking their own lives per year.

The pretty obvious alarm bells I’ve cited here seem to be falling on deaf ears.

There needs to be a monumental shift in social consciousness – I believe, starting with the appreciation of time.

Korea should tip their hats to their recent ancestors, who dedicated their lives to rebuilding the proud city, but life and time need to be enjoyed.

Time is our nourishment, how we use it dictates how we grow.

Studies by Organizational Psychologists demonstrate that happier workers are more productive and less stressed. In a Korea context, this means less stressed parents who can then have time to support and guide the disillusioned youth.

‘Palli palli’ (faster faster) has been the motto that has worked in rejuvenating Korea, but it’s time to slow down, consolidate and appreciate.

The computer game obsessed youth have limited social skills at present and if this continues it would only hamper Seoul’s transition into a powerful and truly multicultural city.

The rich Korean culture needs to be preserved and celebrated, but the mentality needs to get up to speed – more consideration for the individual and accommodate the rest of the world.

The money and infrastructure are there; it’s time to put the soul into Seoul.

About the author

Sebastian Auger

Sebastian Auger

Sebastian Auger is a British writer and teacher, based in Gangnam. A graduate in English Language and Literature from the University of Leeds, he has been in Korea since 2012. He writes articles, contributes to blogs and has a number of books in the pipeline.


  • Wow, lots of strong opinions for a guy who admits he gets most of his information from an adult conversation class. Would you actually recommend that a Korean go to England, sit down with a group of British adults, and then try to understand the culture based on those conversations? In fact I think you also reached out into the world of reading other blogs where other opinionated people paint Korea with a broad brush and presume to know how to fix everything. I applaud you for wanting to share your observations, but I recommend that you start reading deeper materials on Korea (and by deeper I don’t mean upgrade from reading random blogs to reading the Int’l New York Times or the Wall Street Journal’s generally insufficiently researched coverage.

    • p.s. like most Westerners you presume to understand Confucianism but what you’ve written shows that you’re not all the way there yet.

    • You do presume a lot as well yourself about where he gets his opinions from. Very condescending of you. Why do you think some of his students cannot be fluent in english ? I dont teach to Korean student and do not have degree or Phd in Korean studies but I do reach and share his opinion on Korean society in more than one point after living here since 2011 sharing my everyday life with Korean people ranging from 30 to 70 years.. Cordially

      • If you go back and read, you’ll find that he said “It’s through my adult English debate class that I have learned the most about the social conditioning that has taken place on this peninsula. My students have ranged from 18 year olds preparing for exams to, most interestingly, well traveled and educated 50, 60, 70-plus year olds, who simply attend classes for the social aspect.”

        Yes, it’s true, some of them might be fluent. But it’s more likely that they are struggling to articulate themselves perfectly in English. Even if (big if) the students are fluent, they’re still just people with their own experiences and limitations in their viewpoint. They are (presumably) not trained in Korean Studies, (Korean history, Korean philosophy, Korean Literature, you get my drift). So, just as I can ask someone from England to explain British history to me, but should realize their understanding of history is what they didn’t forget from school, incidental parts of historical dramas or movies they watched, part of novel they enjoyed last year, etc. and not actually a trained explanation, I should not expect that conversations with Koreans makes me educated about Korea. (Esp. as pointed out in another comment, if we’re having conversations with people in the new money area of Seoul).

        Easily digestible but accurate history books such as Michael Robinson’s “Korea’s 20th Century Odyssey” exist, and the author should get his hands on them. He should also read up on Confucianism, if he wants to talk about it as though he knows what it’s all about (has he read even a Cliff Notes version of Confucianism? I think not).

        Of course -anyone- who talks to Koreans ONLY in a foreign language and thinks they understand Koreans in general (by this I include you, unless your Korean is great) is bound to be at least experiencing an unrepresentative sampling of society. Do you think otherwise?

        And finally, an article that ends in “it’s time to put the soul in Seoul” BEGS to criticized. What pomposity to presume to have diagnosed every problem in society and then reduce them to a lack of soul.

  • Funny how you cite all kinds of facts and figures and cite nothing. Umm…how did you graduate? And talking with students in an EFL class while “based in Gangnam” (which would of course indicate that you’re dealing with a very small relatively privileged minority among Koreans) somehow makes you an expert in everything about Korean society and history? How so?

    • Last week I taught my students about conducting ethnographic research interviews. Part of this lesson is explaining how important it is that you clear your mind of your own assumptions before you enter that interview. In addition other points that come up in the lesson include the following — 1) That you establish trust and rapport with the person you’re interviewing. 2) That you avoid giving them the impression through your body language, expressions, or wording of your questions that a certain kind of answer is more acceptable/expected. 3) That you do whatever you can to negate power dynamics that will make it hard to get an honest answer. 4) That you accept that if you don’t conduct yourself carefully people will just answer anything — even a lie they know will mislead you– to get done with you, because the answer is easier than the truth, because honestly they don’t care, because it amused them to mislead you, and so on.

      What English teachers in Korea don’t seem to understand when they write stuff like this is that their students are practicing English. They aren’t representing Korea, the government, the culture, or anything else. They are putting together an answer. A good one based on grammar and vocab they want to use. True? Their inner opinion? Maybe not. You’re not their mentor, their mother, their best friend. You’re just their English teacher.

  • The article isn’t as negative as some of you would like to make out. It focuses on what could make Korea better – for people living here and Koreans. Namely a better work life balance and an anti-discrimination law. They are two things that I think it should be difficult to oppose.

    It’s a shame to see strawmans being constructed over Confucianism which purposefully miss the point that the writer is making. Korea is good, but it can improve in some places. CedarBough Saeji you suggest that the author should read about Confucianism and history and you denigrate the reports of the citizens the writer has talked too. (Also by the way living in Gangnam does not automatically mean you teach in Gangnam – I actually commute just under an hour for my work.) But if you want to read a doctoral paper or similar – you’re on the wrong site. For clarification this is on Op-Ed piece. So you should expect … opinions here.

    I really like living here, and I talk to a lot of Koreans through my leisure and my work. And at times I have had conversations about how Korea could be better – alongside conversations about how much better certain things are here than where I come from. That will probably always be the case almost wherever you find yourself in the world.

    And whilst we should not come to Korea and only criticize – conversely to blindly fawn is to remove one of the main impetuses for improvement.

    • I criticize frequently (all day today I was criticizing the handling of the Sewol protests). I just try to do it after I understand instead of before.

    • The author seems to assume that Koreans haven’t had any “shift in consciousness” – that’s pretty condescending toward Koreans who are struggling to make changes. It’s a bloody paternalistic attitude that just makes their struggles even more invisible. On the contrary, Koreans have been talking about these issues far longer than any of us have been writing our “life in Korea” episodes. Change doesn’t happen overnight even in a country as rapidly changing as Korea. What the authour should have done alongside stating his opinion a is to point out active movements and call to support them instead of assuming he has all the answers to the keys to happiness.

      • Tommy if you knew Sebastian you would know that he has lived in numerous locations throughout Korea, as have I. Since returning to the UK I couldn’t agree more with this article. All I can argue is that he failed to mention the suppression towards homosexuality in Korea. Lady Gaga censored seriously? There are other nations in the same situation. One example Malaysia. They even have a saying for it. First world country third world thinking.

        • Even if he has lived in Korea, that does not give him or you the keys to the kingdom. If you have even a basic level of Korean you would know that many of them have a critical view of society and have been struggling against these things for a long time. You’ve simply demeaned their ongoing struggles even more by either pretending they don’t exist (and hence need a foreign messiah to speak out) or continuing ignorance.

          And isn’t the UK where your government is trying to dismantle NHS and engaging in an overtly anti-immigrant British values brainwashing program?

          Likewise my country built a great wall by Arizona. Go “first world” countries!

          • I don’t know what the NHS has to do with this article. We help everyone working in our country as we pay for the service through National insurance. It’s not a free service. This is not being dismantled, although I am sure American pharmaceutical companies would love this to happen.

            Rhetoric of UKIP comes from the jobless and those poorly educated blaming others for their crappy lives. In some instances UKIP are right, the UK could not support the entire French population if they were to move here all at once. But that’s not going to happen! A play on fear is how Hitler won. I am sure the Republicans are the same Tommy.

            My point was that homosexuality was suppressed in that nation. In comparison slavery was culturally acceptable in the USA and was even written into the Bible. Does that make it morally right?

            Koreans may be thinking analytically about society but there has been no change.

  • This is frankly embarrassing. I know The Korea Observer likes a bit of clickbait but I feel guilty even reading let alone commenting.

    To start with the lowest hanging fruit, adult conversation classes will not give you meaningful insight into a nation’s heartbeat. They are speaking in a second language and cannot truly express themselves, nor would they necessarily want to, being more inclined to defensiveness against your clear superiority complex.

    Even teachers without your high-horse attitude will find that people are very likely to defend their own heritage to some degree when being challenged by an outsider. This is the same in nearly all countries and it is why conversation classes are in no way representative of the country at large.

    If you spoke even conversational Korean you would know that there are few people more critical of Korean society than the Koreans themselves. It is when the same questions are posed by an outsider that backs are raised and people become defensive. Learn Korean and befriend Koreans, and then discuss these matters. You will be very surprised with the answers you hear.

    Interesting you talk about “getting up to speed” and all that. A brief historical sojourn might therefore be in order.

    Traditional Korean society was not homophobic. There are many instances of homosexuality being tolerated throughout Korean history, from the village level all the way up to the king. This is not to say it was encouraged, but it was not suppressed as in traditionally Christian nations of the same era. It was only with the coming of Christianity in the last 100 or so years, and the missionaries with it, that the hardcore homophobia you see now reared its head. So, when you talk of the enlightened West leading the way please have some context.

    The same goes for race. Korea never saw itself as a racially pure society. Again Western values, coming through Japan, fostered this scientifically wrong view of humankind. The Japanese taught the Koreans they were of one pure race (with the Japanese more equal than others, of course) and the Koreans then used this to fuel their own nationalism. Now, this is not to say Korea should not get rid of racial bigotry when it can be found, but don’t infer these views are inherently Korean. That is not what history tells us.

    Perhaps the most embarrassing point from the author’s perspective is his suggestion that only his generation is truly civilised. Our parents? They were barbarians. Asians? Well, clearly the continent is a write-off. And based on what? The lack of anti-discrimination law? Well, Sebastian, it would help if you mentioned that there has been such a law sitting in the Blue House since Lee Myungbak and it will be signed the minute the opposition get into power. It should not surprise us that right wing politicians do not represent the ‘soul of Seoul’ (to borrow your hackneyed old line).

    Let’s not also forget that South Korea has among the best records in all of Asia for human rights struggle. Korea has signed up to more human rights treaties than its neighbours and has a stronger domestic record in areas such as accepting refugees. And remember, it was the good old USA that said they were not ready for democracy and propped up dictator after dictator.

    In sum: You impel Koreans to get their mentalities ‘up to speed,’ yet you clearly have little clue what makes them tick.

  • I had a lot of trouble reading this article… it just rubbed me the wrong way. I tried, but I just couldn’t get past the feeling that there is an air of cultural superiority about this article. It’s not like I think there is something wrong with pointing out things that are wrong in any society. I do not agree with those who argue that because we are visitors here we are not allowed to complain when we encounter discrimination or other things that are unequivocally unjust. I would imagine the author of this article would probably have some choice criticisms of his own culture. But there is a difference between pointing out elements of a culture as being problematic and condemning an entire culture as ‘uncivilized.’ He says that we would not call the culture of the 50s/60s civilized with it’s racism and sexism, and I would argue that that is ridiculous. Of course western society was civilized back then, but these parts of it (the racism, the sexism, etc…) those aspects were abhorrent. To say that people of that generation were uncivilized is…insane… The problem is, I think, that the word ‘civilized’ is such a loaded word. To declare people to be uncivilized is to say they are inferior. And that is horse shit, we can’t say that. We can say that sexism/patriarchy is wrong. We can say that is wrong to demand that people conform to unrealistic physical standards (especially the women). We can say that the work hours demanded of people are extreme and likely to lead to unhealthy side effects, but to say that these parts of society deem the entire Korean culture to be uncivilized… it’s cultural racism. “They have not gotten as far as we have in the west, they are inferior… one day they will catch up to us.”

    • I agree with you that uncivilized is a terrible choice of word to describe the social /cultural differences between the west and the east. Both hemispheres are equally brutal and barbaric in their treatment of women. The west only has the veneer of racial and gender equality. I maintain that in these debates both sides are guilty of blatant hypocrisy. It’s disingenuous to suggest that the darker skinned people from the southern half of the globe enjoy the same social status anywhere in the north. Even in the US a place with the most diverse population on the planet institutionalized racism, homophobia and misogyny continue to persist with disastrous effects to individual lives and the progress of society. To claim that Koreans are more sexist, racist, homophobic and nationalistic than western societies is like the pot calling kettle black. To consider them more conformist or suggest they are anymore “enslaved” by their customs and social norms than we westerners is to not be one bit self aware.

  • Guess who else is “enslaved by their social ethics”…?
    It’s everyone.
    (Except for the Übermensch who wrote this article of course.)

  • First of all, I am a 23-year-old korean girl who spent 22 years in Korea being educated in the ordinary, most common korean education. I read through this article & the comments. Apparently, this article is very controversial among the foreigners who are living in Korea right now. I thought I should add my ‘Korean’ perspective to the discussion. Yes, I really agree with his opinion about the appearance-oriented culture. Korean people, indeed, care about how they look to others. And yes, Korean people work too much JUST because they do not want to look bad to their boss. Also, based on the confucianism, the younger have to follow the elder no matter what. If the younger person, for example, has the different opinion, he/she is considered to be ‘wrong’ because he/she stands out too much. Therefore, we, the younger people, have to ‘kill’ our unique personality, originality or creativity just to please the elder people. The younger generation, nowadays, tries to change this ‘wrong’ culture because it compromises the quality of life. Sadly, it is very unlikely to change this culture in a short period of time. Therefore, The author’s observation is, I would say, pretty accurate. A number of foreigners may not agree with this. I think it is because they are the people who deeply get involved in the true korean culture. Even though they think they do, Korean people treat the foreigner VERY differently, which means the foreigners would never know the other aspect of korea.

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