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South Korea Table of Contents

South Korea

Chapter 2. The Society and Its Environment


North Watergate, Suwon Castle, has a stone bridge with seven arches spanning the Namch'on River.

FEW SOCIETIES HAVE CHANGED as rapidly or as dramatically since the end of World War II as that of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). When the war ended in 1945, the great majority of the people living in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula were poor peasants. The Japanese colonial regime from 1910 to 1945 had promoted modernization of the economy and society, but this had a limited, and mainly negative, impact on most Koreans as its main intent was to serve Japan. The poverty and distress of the South Koreans were deepened by the Korean War of 1950-53 when numerous people died and cities and towns were devastated. During the next four decades, however, South Korea evolved into a dynamic, industrial society. By 1990 educational and public health standards were high, most people lived in urban areas, and a complex structure of social classes had emerged that resembled the social structures of developed Western countries or Japan. The country also was making substantial progress in its evolution from a military dictatorship similar to that of many Third World regimes to a democratic, pluralistic political system. In the mid-1950s, few observers could have imagined that Seoul, the country's capital, would emerge from the devastation of war to become one of the world's most vibrant metropolitan centers-- rivaling Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles.

Colonial occupation, war, and the tragedy of national division fostered abrupt social changes. Rapid economic growth engendered profound changes in values and human relationships. Yet there also was continuity with the past. Confucian and neoConfucian ideas and institutions, which flourished during the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), continued to have an important impact in 1990. The Confucian influence was most evident in the tremendous value placed on education, a major factor in South Korea's economic progress. Equally evident was the persistence of hierarchical, often authoritarian, modes of human interaction that reflected neo-Confucianism's emphasis on inequality.

The complex kinship structures of the past, sanctified by Confucianism, had eroded because of urbanization but did not disappear. In 1990 Koreans were more likely to live in nuclear families than their parents or grandparents, but old Confucian ideas of filial piety still were strong. At the same time, contemporary social values were influenced by traditional but non-Confucian Korean values, such as shamanism and Buddhism, and by ideas brought into the country from the West and Japan.

The population of the Korean Peninsula, sharing a common language, ethnic identity, and culture, was one of the world's most homogeneous. Although there were significant regional differences even within the relatively small land area of South Korea, neither the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) nor South Korea had significant non-Korean ethnic minorities. This homogeneity, and the sense of a shared historical experience that it promoted, gave the people of South Korea a strong sense of national purpose. However, the years of Japanese colonial rule, the division of the peninsula after World War II, the establishment of two antagonistic states in the north and south, and the profound changes in the economy and society caused by industrialization and urbanization since the 1950s led many South Koreans to search anew for their national identity and place in the world. Often, the concern for identity expressed itself as xenophobia, the creation of a "national mythology" that was given official or semiofficial sanction, or the search for the special and unique "essence" of Korean culture.

Data as of June 1990