Whenever Korean intellectuals, in and out of Korea,
gather for fellowship and conversation, one of the most often
discussed topics is the social ills that so thoroughly permeate the contemporary Korean society - what Koreans often
refer to as the 'Korean diseases.' The topics in this 'dishonor roll' include, but not limited to:
Corruption (money, power,
Regionalism, Cronyism and Nepotism,
Extravagant weddings and funerals,
Social rudeness and the lack of compassion,
Inability to form group consensus.
To be sure, no human society is free of social diseases;
each has its own set of problems. And by no means Koreans
can claim monopoly of these types of social ills. There are many other societies in the world that are beset by many more,
and much worse, societal and cultural ills. Most of the ills are shared by the East Asian countries - Japan, China, Taiwan
and Korea - and things tend to get worse in the Southeastern Asian countries.
Compared to some other parts of the world, especially
the Latin America, Russia and other former Soviet bloc nations,
and the Indian sub-continents, one might even go so far as to say that the nature of the social ills in Korea are quite tame.
In Korea there are virtually no violent symptoms - terrorism, kidnapping, bombing incidents, assassinations and the sort.
In comparison to these violent behaviors, the 'Korean diseases' are certainly more 'gentler,' but are just as insidious
and deadly as cancer.
On the positive note, a hopeful sign has appeared
within the Korean society recently. The emergence of various advocacy
groups - the grassroots advocacy groups - is one unmistakable sign that the society is maturing and beginning to take first
steps toward self-improvements. Utilizing the power of the Internet (Korea has more than half of its citizens wired)
various advocacy groups have raised their heads. One such is the group that advertises on the Net the records of corrupt
politicians in an election campaign. Another is the latest movements to eradicate the social ill of extravagant wedding
As to what and how overseas Koreans can contribute
towards helping fellow Koreans correct these ills is of critical
importance and a broad framework for starting a movement for actions required by groups of overseas Korean intellectuals
can be an important first step.
To this end, we at SKAS (the Society of Korean American
Scholars) has recently conducted an informal survey of a
limited number of readers - mostly the editorial board of SKAS, members of OKSPN (Overseas Korean Senior
Professionals Network) as well as some selected individuals. The first task was to identify to the best of our capability
the most fundamental underlying causes that fosters the manifested social ills such as listed above. We came to identify
the following six to be the most basic underlying roots.
Six Root Causes
1. Lack of honesty and integrity
This is perhaps the most fundamental of all root
causes and it permeates through all levels of the Korean society,
it is more pronounced, and hence much more damaging, at the leadership class.
2. Lack of principles and mental discipline
All too readily, Koreans constantly compromise their
principles and standards for immediate expediency. Abandonment
of principles and standards is in fact a norm.
3. Lack of fairness, openness and civility
This too is one of the deepest root causes, both
at individual level and at the level of systems (chaebols, role of government,
political and financial systems). The lack of transparency and fairness is pronounced in the so-called "Asian business model"
(which is common in Asia but more severe in Korea) wherein the paradigm of doing business based on personal and
institutional connections is the rule.
4. Lack of role models
Three pillars that help to shape individual characters
and mental strength in any society are education, religion and role
models. Korean society has failed in all three categories.
5. Failure of education
Korean education has served well in teaching knowledge
by memorization (rather than rationalization). This is an
unmitigated failure in helping to shape the character of individuals. In other words, a person should be educated
fostering "solid citizenry" as the first order of educational priority.
6. Failure of religion
Teachings of religion have failed to become the 'living'
guide to population; religion is practiced more as an abstract
concept. It has failed to change, improve and uplift the human qualities in daily lives.
We have identified the above six points to be the
most basic of underlying roots that feeds and breeds the social ills
collectively as the 'Korean diseases.' As to what remedies and what advocacy actions can be recommended, we plan to
take it up in the near future. This editorial represents collective thoughts of scores of individuals who participated in the
survey and the resulting discussions. The names of those who have taken more proactive role are listed below, in random
Professor of Physics
Member of OKSPN
S. J. Chang
Professor of Finance
Illinois State University
Ki Joon Chang
Professor Emeritus of Chemistry
Alabama A&M Univ
Member of OKSPN
Jai B. Kim
Chairman and Professor
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Member of OKSPN