South Korea

This is part of an ongoing series, our “100 Countries” project. For corresponding full-length article, see here:

The highly developed capital city of Seoul.

Korea, long known as ‘The Hermit Kingdom’ for its reluctance to engage with the world, has burst into the global consciousness in recent years. A digital leader in this technological age, with the world’s 10th largest economy, South Korean society is ultra-modern at the same time that it retains at least a sense of its tradition.

Jeju Island memorial to victims of the 1947-1953 ‘communist’ military massacres.

The 20th century brought multi-layered trauma to the Korean society, beginning with 35 years of Japanese occupation followed by a chaotic restructuring which led to a civil (proxy) war, 1950-53; the 30-year period of South Korea’s intensive rebuilding to follow, at a globally unprecedented rate of redevelopment, brought with it numerous social stressors.

Political engagement and unrest, in this still-young democracy: demonstrations for the removal of then-President PARK Geun-hye (Seoul, 2017)

After centuries of monarchy and the Japanese occupation during a period covering both world wars, followed by a US shadow government, then 3 military dictatorships in the aftermath of its civil war, South Korea today is considered still a ‘young democracy’ — only since 1987 truly functioning as such. In the manner of most young democracies, it is prone to political unrest and protest.

The International Convention Center on Jeju Island, where numerous prestigious international events have taken place — and where a forum for peace throughout the region is held every year.

In the 3 decades between the nation’s hosting of the summer Olympics in 1988 and winter Olympics in 2018, South Korea has actively sought to brand itself to the world and engage with numerous global agencies and initiatives, as well as playing host to a countless number of international events. As a result, the country is well known today and positioned to become a leading nation, despite its relatively small size: just 52 million in population on a land mass smaller than that of Iceland.

EWHA, the world’s largest university for women, founded 1888. (Seoul)

In this culture of longstanding Confucian values, education is highly emphasised; 70% have achieved tertiary level, a number of international school branches can be found here, and private academies and institutes abound. Though this is admirable, it has also led to greater socioeconomic division and uneven employment availability. While females were not permitted entry to most universities until the 1960s, EWHA Woman’s University in Seoul has existed for well over a century.

Hofstede, a leader in cultural study but whose data have not been updated since 2002, identifies Korea as still quite determined by Confucian values of hierarchy, risk aversion, and patriarchy, while not proactive but reactive, the latter of which is agreed to by Lewis, another cultural study leader. These Confucian ideals are rapidly changing, however, as the culture shifts toward greater individualism and egalitarianism, and away from gender-specified roles. Risk aversion and long-term orientation are also undergoing change.

Shamanist opening ceremony of an exhibition at Seoul Museum of Art (2014).

More than half of South Korean society report no religious affiliation, while more than 40% identify either as Buddhist, Catholic, or Protestant, with a tiny Muslim population among foreign residents. Shamanism, which has existed on the peninsula for at least 5 millennia, is still practiced today and pervasive throughout much of the traditions, often also seen in very modern settings.

A traditional market, run primarily by elderly women. (2012, Jeju Island)

South Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world and one of the most rapidly aging societies as a result, with deep concerns for its future work force. As it is also a world leader in technology, however, these two areas are likely to complement one another, with digital solutions to the problem of labour and in support of the elderly.

K-pop group BTS, global phenomenon and the country’s most successful cultural export to date, at the 2022 Grammy Awards.

As part of its national branding, the government developed a plan to introduce itself to the world first through pop culture such as film and music, secondly via its cuisine, and finally by its traditions. This has been enormously successful and its cultural products are widely known.

Following a century of trauma, and with evidence of ongoing strains in the society, South Korean nonetheless has emerged as a leading nation today with a high GDP; its ‘happiness index’, however, does not always match, in this country of high depression and suicide rates, low job opportunities for the university-educated, and other social concerns. It is widely accepted that it can take up to 5 generations post-conflict for a society to heal from its trauma, and this small nation is still well within this process, the need for ‘healing’ an acknowledged cultural theme. Its future is economically bright and socially mixed, and only time will tell the story.