With each ballistic missile launch or fratricide, the world is reminded of North Korea’s deranged personality cult – yet, very little is said about how the Kim family’s grip on the country came to be. In recent years, leading U.S. authors like B.R. Myers and Barbara Demick have helped to decode North Korea for European audiences as a ruthless exploitation of traditional Confucian ideals of self-sacrifice and blind obedience for a paternal ruler, embodied by each male heir of the Kim dynasty.
But whether we look at North Korea, or its far more modern and liberal neighbor south of the 38th parallel, Confucian ideals continue to dictate how Korean societies are organized. Even in the most cosmopolitan families in Seoul, a Korean adult would never dare to address an older family member on a first name basis out of respect for seniority.
The high social standing given to bureaucrats in Confucian societies has created a first-class elite of diplomats, trade negotiators and industrial planners. Confucianism even shapes the ultra-globalized multinationals as cutting-edge technology firms like LG, Samsung or Hyundai are organised as conglomerate ‘chaebols’ based on hereditary ownership and life-long employees, who become ‘family members.’
Seedbed for Cold War Ideologies
Korea’s history with Confucianism goes back to the Chôson dynasty in the 15th century who embraced it as a fitting state ideology. Over the centuries, Confucianism has continued to define Korean national identify and galvanised it against Chinese assimilation or Japanese occupation. During the post-war period, the totalitarian North exploited Confucianism to degenerate into isolation and famine, while the martial rule under General Park Chung-hee pursued an export-led growth strategy at gun point.
As Confucius puts merchants at the bottom of the societal hierarchy, Chaebol family heads narrowly escaped incarceration by pledging to “donate” their cash to the military regime in exchange for keeping their factories. Workers were unorganised and virtuous. General Park assured the industrialists would do well under his new economic order – if they submitted to their original lowly caste.
While South Korea’s martial mercantilism gave way for free trade and democracy, Confucian attitudes still persist. During the Asian financial crisis of 1997 (that ended up costing the taxpayers nearly 30% of GDP), Koreans selflessly heeded the call to donate their gold to the central bank. In total, citizens melted family heirlooms and wedding rings and donated over 220 tonnes or $2 billion worth of gold to meet IMF payments on the due date. This stark contrast to the Greeks and the Germans in the Euro crisis is too obvious.
Confucian Coils and Corruption
Understandably, today’s modern and democratic South Korea has implemented carefully balanced safeguards against Presidential powers. Its National Assembly cannot be dissolved by the President, who is limited to a single five-year term. Presidents are limited to building a lasting legacy rather than a political dynasty. Still, practically every incumbent of the Blue House – the presidential office – has also been accused of graft. The previous president, Park Geun-hye (the unrepentant daughter of General Park) was impeached last December for soliciting payments from South Korea’s leading chaebols. The family heir of the Samsung chaebol, Lee Jae-Yong, is facing trial for an $800,000 horse given to the daughter of President Park’s confidante, an aspiring professional equestrian.
At the time, Samsung was seeking support from government-controlled pension funds to transfer the controlling stakes of the Samsung conglomerate to his generation. There may be no material evidence of former being linked to the latter, and jailing the country’s most successful business leader (despite its obvious ramifications for investor confidence) is a risky, yet a very calculated move, which South Korea’s export-led economy is unprepared for.
The newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, rode on the crest of a wave of anti-corruption sentiments into office. He immediately summoned the chaebols to ‘discussions’ about their dominance – and indeed, the press photos illustrating the gathering shows a dozen older men, identically dressed as the president, struggling to hide their discomfort while they submissively listening to their president as if each syllable was a profound piece of wisdom.
A Philosophy Weaponised
President Moon likely appreciates there is a political legacy and personal vengeance in going after the chaebols. But as evident from other export-led economies (e.g. Sweden, Taiwan or Switzerland) that are also dominated by hereditary conglomerates, chaebols are a result of Korea’s exports, not corruption. For the Western observer, the optics of President Moon and the chaebols drinking beer has an uncanny resemblance to General Park Chung-hee making them an offer they can’t refuse, or of Kim Jong-il providing “on spot” guidance on factory floors across North Korea.
It seems residues of centuries of Confucian heavy-handed governing is nearly impossible to purge. Confucianism, with its emphasis on hierarchy and obedience as a virtue, contrasts sharply with the European appreciation of individuality, creativity and self-expression. In 1999, the author Kim Kyung-il went as far as writing ‘Confucius must die so the nation can live.’ South Korea may have become an industrialized nation thanks to its Confucian roots – but what the recent political scandals also show is how South Korea is one of the world’s most innovative economies and a stable liberal democracy despite them.
Every leader on the Korean peninsula has shown how Confucianism is remarkably easy to ‘weaponise’ – as it lets a ruler harvest the efforts of the people and channel it towards his or her own goals — whether the policy objective is trade surpluses from smartphones or fighting multinationals in South Korea, or perfecting nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles that holds the key to perpetual rule for the Kim family in the North.