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South Korea - SOCIETY

South Korea - The Society

South Korea

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.


South Korea

South Korea - Population

South Korea

Although a variety of different Asian peoples had migrated to the Korean Peninsula in past centuries, very few have remained permanently, so by 1990 both South Korea and North Korea were among the world's most ethnically homogeneous nations. The number of indigenous minorities was negligible. In South Korea, people of foreign origin, including Westerners, Chinese, and Japanese, were a small percentage of the population whose residence was generally temporary. Like their Japanese neighbors, Koreans tend to equate nationality or citizenship with membership in a single, homogeneous ethnic group or "race" (minjok, in Korean). A common language and culture also are viewed as important elements in Korean identity. The idea of multiracial or multiethnic nations, like India or the United States, strikes many Koreans as odd or even contradictory. Consciousness of homogeneity is a major reason why Koreans on both sides of the DMZ viewed their country's division as an unnatural and unnecessary tragedy.

Against the background of ethnic homogeneity, however, significant regional differences exist. Within South Korea, the most important regional difference is between the Kyongsang region, embracing North Kyongsang and South Kyongsang provinces in the southeast, and the Cholla region, embracing North Cholla and South Cholla provinces in the southwest. The two regions, separated by the Chiri Massif, nurture a rivalry said to reach back to the Three Kingdoms Period, which lasted from the fourth century to the seventh century A.D., when the kingdoms of Paekche and Silla struggled for control of the peninsula. Observers noted that interregional marriages are rare, and that as of 1990 a new fourlane highway completed in 1984 between Kwangju and Taegu, the capitals of South Cholla and North Kyongsang provinces, completed in 1984, had not been successful in promoting travel between the two areas. South Korea's political elite, including presidents Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan, and Roh Tae Woo, have come largely from the Kyongsang region. As a result, Kyongsang has been a special beneficiary of government development assistance. By contrast, the Cholla region has remained comparatively rural, undeveloped, and poor. Chronically disaffected, its people rightly or wrongly have a reputation for rebelliousness. Regional bitterness was intensified by the May 1980 Kwangju incident, in which about 200 and perhaps many more inhabitants of the capital of South Cholla Province were killed by government troops sent to quell an insurrection. Many of the troops reportedly were from the Kyongsang region.

Regional stereotypes, like regional dialects, have been breaking down under the influence of centralized education, nationwide media, and the several decades of population movement since the Korean War. Stereotypes remain important, however, in the eyes of many South Koreans. For example, the people of Kyonggi Province, surrounding Seoul, are often described as being cultured, and Ch'ungch'ong people, inhabiting the region embracing North Ch'ungch'ong and South Ch'ungch'ong provinces, are thought to be mild-mannered, manifesting true yangban virtues. The people of Kangwon Province in the northeast were viewed as poor and stolid, while Koreans from the northern provinces of P'yongang, Hwanghae, and Hamgyong, now in North Korea, are perceived as being diligent and aggressive. Cheju Island is famous for its strong-minded and independent women.

Population Trends

The population of South Korea has grown rapidly since the republic's establishment in 1948. In the first official census, taken in 1949, the total population of South Korea was calculated at 20,188,641 people. The 1985 census total was 40,466,577. Population growth was slow, averaging about 1.1 percent annually during the period from 1949 to 1955, when the population registered at 21.5 million. Growth accelerated between 1955 and 1966 to 29.2 million or an annual average of 2.8 percent, but declined significantly during the period 1966 to 1985 to an annual average of 1.7 percent. Thereafter, the annual average growth rate was estimated to be less than 1 percent, similar to the low growth rates of most industrialized countries and to the target figure set by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs for the 1990s. As of January 1, 1989, the population of South Korea was estimated to be approximately 42.2 million.

The proportion of the total population under fifteen years of age has risen and fallen with the growth rate. In 1955 approximately 41.2 percent of the population was under fifteen years of age, a percentage that rose to 43.5 percent in 1966 before falling to 38.3 percent in 1975, 34.2 percent in 1980, and 29.9 percent in 1985. In the past, the large proportion of children relative to the total population put great strains on the country's economy, particularly because substantial resources were invested in education facilities. With the slowdown in the population growth rate and a rise in the median age (from 18.7 years to 21.8 years between 1960 and 1980), the age structure of the population has begun to resemble the columnar pattern typical of developed countries, rather than the pyramidal pattern found in most parts of the Third World.

The decline in the population growth rate and in the proportion of people under fifteen years of age after 1966 reflected the success of official and unofficial birth control programs. The government of President Syngman Rhee (1948-60) was conservative in such matters. Although Christian churches initiated a family planning campaign in 1957, it was not until 1962 that the government of Park Chung Hee, alarmed at the way in which the rapidly increasing population was undermining economic growth, began a nationwide family planning program. Other factors that contributed to a slowdown in population growth included urbanization, later marriage ages for both men and women, higher education levels, a greater number of women in the labor force, and better health standards.

Public and private agencies involved in family planning included the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea, and the Korea Institute of Family Planning. In the late 1980s, their activities included distribution of free birth control devices and information, classes for women on family planning methods, and the granting of special subsidies and privileges (such as low-interest housing loans) to parents who agreed to undergo sterilization. There were 502,000 South Koreans sterilized in 1984, as compared with 426,000 in the previous year.

The 1973 Maternal and Child Health Law legalized abortion. In 1983 the government began suspending medical insurance benefits for maternal care for pregnant women with three or more children. It also denied tax deductions for education expenses to parents with two or more children.

As in China, cultural attitudes pose problems for family planning programs. A strong preference for sons--who in Korea's Confucian value system are expected to care for their parents in old age and carry on the family name--means that parents with only daughters usually continue to have children until a son is born. The government has encouraged married couples to have only one child. This has been a prominent theme in public service advertising, which stresses "have a single child and raise it well."

Total fertility rates (the average number of births a woman will have during her lifetime) fell from 6.1 births per female in 1960 to 4.2 in 1970, 2.8 in 1980, and 2.4 in 1984. The number of live births, recorded as 711,810 in 1978, grew to a high of 917,860 in 1982. This development stirred apprehensions among family planning experts of a new "baby boom." By 1986, however, the number of live births had declined to 806,041.

Given the size and age structure of the population in 1990, however, substantial increases are expected over the next few decades. According to the government's Economic Planning Board, the country's population will increase to between 46 and 48 million by the end of the twentieth century, with growth rates ranging between 0.9 and 1.2 percent. The population is expected to stabilize (that is, cease to grow) in the year 2023 at around 52.6 million people. In the words of Asiaweek magazine, the "stabilized tally will approximate the number of Filipinos in 1983, but squeezed into less than a third of their [the Philippines'] space."

Population Settlement Patterns

South Korea was one of the world's most densely populated countries, with an estimated 425 people per square kilometer in 1989--over sixteen times the average population density of the United States in the late 1980s. By comparison, China had an estimated 114 people, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) 246 people, and Japan 323 people per square kilometer in the late 1980s. Because about 70 percent of South Korea's land area is mountainous and the population is concentrated in the lowland areas, actual population densities were in general greater than the average. As early as 1975, it was estimated that the density of South Korea's thirty-five cities, each of which had a population of 50,000 or more inhabitants, was 3,700 people per square kilometer. Because of continued migration to urban areas, the figure was doubtless higher in the late 1980s.

In 1988 Seoul had a population density of 17,030 people per square kilometer as compared with 13,816 people per square kilometer in 1980. The second largest city, Pusan, had a density of 8,504 people per square kilometer in 1988 as compared with 7,272 people in 1980. Kyonggi Province, which surrounds the capital and contains Inch'on, the country's fourth largest city, was the most densely populated province; Kangwon Province in the northeast was the least densely populated province.

The extreme crowding in South Korea in 1990 was a major factor not only in economic development and in the standard of living but also in the development of social attitudes and human relationships. More than most other peoples, South Koreans have had to learn to live peacefully with each other in small, crowded spaces, in which the competition for limited resources, including space itself, is intense. Continued population growth means that the shortage of space for living and working will grow more severe. According to the government's Economic Planning Board, the population density will be 530 people per square kilometer by 2023, the year the population is expected to stabilize.


Like other newly industrializing economies, South Korea experienced rapid growth of urban areas caused by the migration of large numbers of people from the countryside. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Seoul, by far the largest urban settlement, had a population of about 190,000 people. There was a striking contrast with Japan, where Edo (Tokyo) had as many as 1 million inhabitants and the urban population comprised as much as 10 to 15 percent of the total during the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868). During the closing years of the Choson Dynasty and the first years of Japanese colonial rule, the urban population of Korea was no more than 3 percent of the total. After 1930, when the Japanese began industrial development on the Korean Peninsula, particularly in the northern provinces adjacent to Manchuria, the urban portion of the population began to grow, reaching 11.6 percent for all of Korea in 1940.

Between 1945 and 1985, the urban population of South Korea grew from 14.5 percent to 65.4 percent of the total population. In 1988 the Economic Planning Board estimated that the urban portion of the population will reach 78.3 percent by the end of the twentieth century. Most of this urban increase was attributable to migration rather than to natural growth of the urban population. Urban birth rates have generally been lower than the national average. The extent of urbanization in South Korea, however, is not fully revealed in these statistics. Urban population was defined in the national census as being restricted to those municipalities with 50,000 or more inhabitants. Although many settlements with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants were satellite towns of Seoul or other large cities or mining communities in northeastern Kangwon Province, which would be considered urban in terms of the living conditions and occupations of the inhabitants, they still were officially classified as rural.

The dislocation caused by the Korean War accounted for the rapid increase in urban population during the early 1950s. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them from North Korea, streamed into the cities. During the post-Korean War period, rural people left their ancestral villages in search of greater economic and educational opportunities in the cities. By the late 1960s, migration had become a serious problem, not only because cities were terribly overcrowded, but also because the rural areas were losing the most youthful and productive members of their labor force.

In the early 1970s, the Park Chung Hee government launched the Saemaul undong (New Community Movement) as a rural reconstruction and self-help movement to improve economic conditions in the villages, close the wide gap in income between rural and urban areas, and stem urban migration--as well as to build a political base. Despite a huge amount of governmentsponsored publicity, especially during the Park era, it was not clear by the late 1980s that the Saemaul undong had achieved its objectives. By that time many, if not most, farming and fishing villages consisted of older persons; relatively few able-bodied men and women remained to work in the fields or to fish. This trend was apparent in government statistics for the 1986-87 period: the proportion of people fifty years old or older living in farming communities grew from 28.7 percent in 1986 to 30.6 percent in 1987, while the number of people in their twenties living in farming communities declined from 11.3 percent to 10.8 percent. The nationwide percentages for people fifty years old or older and in their twenties were, in 1986, 14.9 percent and 20.2 percent, respectively.

In 1985 the largest cities were Seoul (9,645,932 inhabitants), Pusan (3,516,807), Taegu (2,030,672), Inch'on (1,387,491), Kwangju (906,129), and Taejon (866,695). According to government statistics, the population of Seoul, one of the world's largest cities, surpassed 10 million people in late 1988. Seoul's average annual population growth rate during the late 1980s was more than 3 percent. Two-thirds of this growth was attributable to migration rather than to natural increase. Surveys revealed that "new employment or seeking a new job," "job transfer," and "business" were major reasons given by new immigrants for coming to the capital. Other factors cited by immigrants included "education" and "a more convenient area to live."

To alleviate overcrowding in Seoul's downtown area, the city government drew up a master plan in the mid-1980s that envisioned the development of four "core zones" by 2000: the original downtown area, Yongdongp'o-Yoido, Yongdong, and Ch'amsil. Satellite towns also would be established or expanded. In the late 1980s, statistics revealed that the daytime or commuter population of downtown Seoul was as much as six times the officially registered population. If the master plan is successful, many commuters will travel to work in a core area nearer their homes, and the downtown area's daytime population will decrease. Many government ministries have been moved out of Seoul, and the army, navy, and air force headquarters have been relocated to Taejon.

In 1985 the population of Seoul constituted 23.8 percent of the national total. Provincial cities, however, experienced equal and, in many cases, greater expansion than the capital. Growth was particularly spectacular in the southeastern coastal region, which encompasses the port cities of Pusan, Masan, Yosu, Chinhae, Ulsan, and P'ohang. Census figures show that Ulsan's population increased eighteenfold, growing from 30,000 to 551,300 inhabitants between 1960 and 1985. With the exception of Yosu, all of these cities are in South Kyongsang Province, a region that has been an especially favored recipient of government development projects. By comparison, the population of Kwangju, capital of South Cholla Province, increased less than threefold between 1960 and 1985, growing from 315,000 to 906,129 inhabitants.

Rapid urban growth has brought familiar problems to developed and developing countries alike. The construction of large numbers of high-rise apartment complexes in Seoul and other large cities alleviated housing shortages to some extent. But it also imposed hardship on the tens of thousands of people who were obliged to relocate from their old neighborhoods because they could not afford the rents in the new buildings. In the late 1980s, squatter areas consisting of one-story shacks still existed in some parts of Seoul. Housing for all but the wealthiest was generally cramped. The concentration of factories in urban areas, the rapid growth of motorized traffic, and the widespread use of coal for heating during the severe winter months have caused dangerous levels of air and water pollution. Although environmental awareness is increasing, a polluted environment will adversely affect the quality of life in the cities for some time to come.

Koreans Living Overseas

Large-scale emigration from Korea began around 1904 and continued until the end of World War II. During the Japanese colonial occupation, many Koreans emigrated to Manchuria (present-day China's northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang), other parts of China, the Soviet Union, Hawaii, and the continental United States. Most emigrated for economic reasons; employment opportunities were scarce, and many Korean farmers lost their land after the Japanese introduced a system of land registration and private land tenure, imposed higher land taxes, and promoted the growth of an absentee landlord class charging exorbitant rents. Koreans from the northern provinces of Korea went mainly to Manchuria, China, and Siberia. Many people from the southern provinces went to Japan. Koreans were conscripted into Japanese labor battalions or the Japanese army, especially during World War II. In the 1940-44 period, nearly 2 million Koreans lived in Japan, 1.4 million in Manchuria, 600,000 in Siberia, and 130,000 in China. An estimated 40,000 Koreans were scattered among other countries. At the end of World War II, approximately 2 million Koreans were repatriated from Japan and Manchuria.

More than 4 million ethnic Koreans lived outside the peninsula during the early 1980s. The largest group, about 1.7 million people, lived in China. Most had assumed Chinese citizenship. The Soviet Union had about 430,000 ethnic Koreans. One observer noted that Koreans had been so successful in running collective farms in Soviet Central Asia that being Korean was often associated by other Soviets with being rich.

By contrast, many of Japan's approximately 700,000 Koreans had below-average standards of living. This situation occurred partly because of discrimination by the Japanese majority and partly because of the fact that a large number of resident Koreans, loyal to the North Korean regime of Kim Il Sung, preferred to remain separate from and hostile to the Japanese mainstream. The pro-North Korea Chosen soren (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) initially was more successful than the pro-South Korea Mindan (Association for Korean Residents in Japan) in attracting adherents among residents in Japan. Since diplomatic relations were established between Seoul and Tokyo in 1965, however, the South Korean government has taken an active role in promoting the interests of their residents in Japan in negotiations with the Japanese government. It also has provided subsidies to Korean schools in Japan and other community activities.

By the end of 1988 there were over 2 million South Korean overseas residents. North America was the preferred destination, as the choice of over 1.2 million. Korean immigrants in the United States and Canada gained a reputation for hard work and economic success. South Koreans also were overseas residents of Japan (at least 680,000), Central America and South America (85,000), the Middle East (62,000), Western Europe (40,000), other Asian countries (27,000), and Africa (25,000). A limited number of South Korean government-sponsored migrants settled in Chile, Argentina, and other Latin American countries. Because of South Korea's rapid economic expansion, an increasing number of its citizens reside abroad on a temporary basis as business executives, technical personnel, foreign students, and construction workers. A small number of overseas South Koreans had migrated back to South Korea primarily because of the much improved economic conditions and the difficulties in adjusting to living abroad.

Updated population figures for South Korea.

South Korea


South Korea

The social values of contemporary South Korea reflect the synthesis and development of diverse influences, both indigenous and foreign. Probably the most important of these is the neoConfucian doctrine of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200), first introduced into Korea during the closing years of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392). The rulers of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) adopted it as their state ideology. The most important Korean neo-Confucian philosopher, Yi Hwang, also known as Yi T'oe-gye (1501-70), had a great influence on later generations of Confucianists not only in Korea, but also in Japan.

Neo-Confucianism combines the social ethics of the classical Chinese philosophers Confucius (Kong Zi, 551-479 B.C.) and Mencius (Meng Zi, 372-289 B.C.) with Daoist, or Taoist, and Buddhist metaphysics. One of the doctrine's basic ideas is that the institutions and practices of the ideal human community are an expression of the immutable principles or laws that govern the movements of the cosmos. Through correct social practice, as defined by the Confucian sages and their commentators, individuals can achieve a kind of spiritual unity with heaven. Neo-Confucianism defines formal social relations on all levels of society. Social relations are not conceived of in terms of the happiness or satisfaction of the individuals involved, but in terms of the harmonious integration of individuals into a collective whole that mirrors the harmony of the natural order.

Neo-Confucianism in Korea was becoming rigid and increasingly conservative by the mid-1500s. The practice of neo-Confucianism emphasized hierarchy in human relations and self-control on the individual level. Society was defined in terms of the Five Relationships (o ryun in Korean; wu lun in Chinese) that had been formulated by classical Chinese thinkers, such as Mencius, and subsequently sanctified by the neo-Confucian metaphysicians: "between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be righteousness; between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young there should be a proper order; and between friends there should be faithfulness." Only the last was a relationship between equals. The others were based on authority and subordination, including the first relationship, which involved not so much mutual love as the unquestioning subordination of the son to the will of his father.

Throughout traditional Korean society, from the royal palace and central government offices in Seoul to the humblest household in the provinces, the themes of hierarchy and inequality were pervasive. Persons were expected to nurture "sincere" attitudes, which meant not so much expressing what one "really" felt as "reflecting on" or "clarifying" one's thoughts and feelings until they conformed to traditional norms. There was no concept of the rights of the individual. The ideal man or woman was one who controlled his or her passions or emotions in order to fulfill to the letter a host of exacting social obligations.

In the context of wider society, a well-defined elite of scholar-officials versed in neo-Confucian orthodoxy was legitimized in terms of the traditional ethical distinction between the educated "superior man" or "gentleman" and the "small man" who seeks only profit. This was a central theme in the writings of Confucius and Mencius. Confucianism as a political theory proposed a benevolent paternalism: the masses had no role in government, but the scholar-officials were supposed to look after them as fathers look after their children.

Just as the father commanded unquestioning obedience in the household and the scholar-official elite did so in the nation as a whole, there was also a hierarchy in international relations. China, the homeland of neo-Confucianism and the most powerful nation in the region, was the center of Choson Korea's cultural universe for most of the dynasty's duration.

Foreign observers have been impressed with the diversity of the Korean character as expressed in day-to-day human relations. There is, on one hand, the image of Koreans as self-controlled, deferential, and meticulous in the fulfillment of their social obligations; on the other hand is the Korean reputation for volatility and emotionalism, for being the "Irish of the East." The ecstasy and euphoria of shamanistic religious practices, one of Korea's most characteristic cultural expressions, contrasts sharply with the austere self-control of Confucian ancestor rituals. Although relatively minor themes in the history of Korean ethics and social thought, the concepts of equality and respect for individuals are not entirely lacking. The doctrines of Ch'ondogyo, an indigenous religion that originated in the nineteenth century and combines elements of Buddhism, Daoism, shamanism, Confucianism, and Catholicism, teach that every human "bears divinity" and that one must "treat man as god."

Western social and political values such as democracy, individualism, the equality of the sexes (also seen in Ch'ondogyo), and national self-determination were introduced by late nineteenth-century Korean reformers and by West European and North American missionaries, who had a profound effect upon the development of Korean education and political values. These concepts have played an increasingly prominent role in South Korean life in recent decades.

Although by no means democratic, the Confucian tradition itself contains anti-authoritarian themes. Mencius taught that the sovereign and his officials must concern themselves with the welfare of the people and that a king who misuses his power loses the right to rule--the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. In Korean as well as Chinese history, there were many Confucian statesmen who, often at the cost of their own lives, opposed the misuse of power by those in authority. The tradition of political protest in South Korea, particularly by university students, owes as much to this aspect of the Confucian tradition as it does to democratic and Marxist concepts imported from the West. Just as Korean historians idealize out-of-power "rustic literati" or sarim, who were said to pursue purely moral and academic studies and to disdain government service at various times during the Choson period, so modern-day university students, claiming to be the "conscience of the nation," have opposed the bureaucratic and professional elite in government and private business.

Thus, to depict traditional Korean social values in terms of an authoritarian Confucian tradition is overly simplistic. A more comprehensive account of social values might describe them in terms of interacting dualities, a kind of yin-yang opposition and synthesis. There is the tension, for example, between selfcontrol and solemnity on the one hand, and almost explosive volatility on the other, at the level of individual behavior; between the duty-bound austerity of Confucian family life and ritualism, and the ecstasy and abandon of shamanistic rites; between the conservatism of agricultural villages and the looser social organization of fishing communities; between the orthodox concept of male supremacy and the reality of much "hidden" female power; between the "higher" rationalized, humanistic, or scientific culture imported from China, Japan, or the West, and much older indigenous or native cultural themes; between hierarchy and equality; and between slavish deference to authority and principled resistance.

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<>Changing Role of Women

South Korea

South Korea - Traditional Social Structure

South Korea

In Choson Dynasty Korea, four rather distinct social strata developed: the scholar-officials, collectively referred to as the yangban; the chungin (literally "middle people"), technicians and administrators subordinate to the yangban; the commoners or sangmin, a large group composed of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants; and the ch'ommin (literally despised people)," at the bottom of society. To ensure stability, the government devised a system of personal tallies in order to identify people according to their status.

In the strictest sense of the term, yangban referred to government officials or officeholders who had passed the civil service examinations that tested knowledge of the Confucian classics and their neo-Confucian interpreters. They were the Korean counterparts of the scholar-officials, or mandarins, of imperial China. The term yangban, first used during the Koryo Dynasty, means literally "two groups," that is, civil and military officials. Over the centuries, however, its usage became rather vague, so that the term can be said to have several overlapping meanings. Strictly speaking, a yangban lineage was one that consistently combined examination success with appointments to government office over a period of some generations. During the Choson period, examination candidates had to show several generations of such ancestry on both sides to be admitted to the civil service examinations. A broader use of the term included within the yangban two other groups that could be considered associated with, but outside of, the ruling elite. The first group included those scholars who had passed the preliminary civil service examination and sometimes the higher examinations but failed to secure government appointment. In the late Choson Dynasty, there were many more successful examination candidates than there were positions. The second group included the more remote relatives and descendants of government officials. Even if these people were poor and did not themselves serve in the government, they were considered members of a "yangban family" and thus shared the aura of the elite as long as they retained Confucian culture and rituals.

An interesting development in the social history of the Choson Dynasty occurred after the government began to sell honorary patents of office to people who were not yangban to raise revenue following the dislocations of the Hideyoshi invasions. Wealthy commoners sometimes went beyond such status symbols to commission forged genealogies or to take on other trappings of yangban status. This form of social climbing was highly irritating to traditional yangban families of the types mentioned above. Probably even more common were former yangban families that had drifted down into genteel poverty and commoner status. Both developments show that the Choson Dynasty class system was beginning to lose some of its rigidity on the eve of the momentous changes of the late nineteenth century.

Yangban serving as officials could enrich themselves because they were given royal grants of land and had many opportunities for graft; but unemployed scholars and local gentry often were poor, a kind of "twilight elite" that was both feared and yet often mocked in peasant entertainments. In his satirical Tale of a Yangban, the writer Pak Chi-won (1737-1805) describes the life of a yangban, however poor, as one of enforced idleness, exacerbated by the need to maintain appearances. A yangban had to study Confucian literature and pass at least the preliminary examinations. He was prohibited from engaging in manual labor or commerce and had to present an image of poise and self-control. A yangban could not, among other things, "poke and play with his chopsticks," "eat raw onions," or "puff hard on his pipe, pulling in his cheeks." Yet he exercised much arbitrary power in his own village.

In principle, the yangban were a meritocratic elite. They gained their positions through educational achievement. Certain groups of persons (artisans, merchants, shamans, slaves, Buddhist monks, and others) were prohibited from taking the higher civil service examinations, but these formed only a small minority of the population. In theory, the examinations were open to the large majority of people who were farmers. In the early years of the Choson Dynasty, some commoners may have been able to attain high positions by passing the examinations and advancing on sheer talent. In later years, talent was a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite for entry into the core elite because of the surplus of successful examinees. Influential family connections were virtually indispensable for obtaining high official positions. Moreover, special posts called "protection appointments" were inherited by descendants of the Choson royal family and certain high officials. Despite the emphasis on educational merit, the yangban became in a very real sense a hereditary elite.

Below the yangban yet superior to the commoners were the chungin, a small group of technical and administrative officials. They included astronomers, physicians, interpreters, and professional military officers, as well as artists. Local functionaries, who were members of a lower hereditary class, were an important and frequently oppressive link between the yangban and the common people. They were often the de facto rulers of a local region.

The commoners, or sangmin, composed about 75 percent of the total population. These farmers, craftsmen, and merchants alone bore the burden of taxation and were subject to military conscription. Farmers had higher prestige than merchants, but lived a hard life. Below the commoners, the "base people" or ch'ommin did what was considered vile or low-prestige work. They included servants and slaves in government offices and resthouses, jailkeepers and convicts, shamans, actors, female entertainers (kisaeng), professional mourners, shoemakers, executioners, and for a time at least, Buddhist monks and nuns. Also included in this category were the paekchong, apparently descended from Inner Asian nomads, who dealt with meat and the hides of animals, were considered "unclean," and lived in segregated communities. Slaves were treated as chattels but could own property and even other slaves. Although numerous at the beginning of the Choson Dynasty, their numbers had dwindled by the time slavery was officially abolished at the end of the nineteenth century.

During their invasions in 1592 and 1597, the armies of the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi destroyed many genealogical records, making it difficult to determine who was and who was not a member of a yangban family. Also, as Japanese armies were approaching Seoul, slaves in the capital rose up and burned documentary evidence of their servitude. By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the old social distinctions were breaking down. During the early Choson Dynasty, commoners did not have family names or class affiliations. However, they began to adopt names in order to avoid the stigma of low status. Counterfeit genealogies could frequently be purchased, and commoners sometimes attached their names to yangban genealogies to avoid military service taxes. Other late Choson Dynasty social changes included the gradual shift of agricultural labor from slave status to contractual arrangements, and the emergence of "entrepreneurial farmers"--commoners who earned small surpluses through innovative agricultural techniques.

South Korea

South Korea - The Emergence of a Modern Society

South Korea

In 1894 a program of social reforms, known as the Kabo Reforms, was initiated by pro-Japanese Korean officials. Yangban and commoners were made equal before the law, the old Confucian civil service examinations were abolished, and slavery and ch'ommin status was ended. Modern forms of government and administration, largely borrowed from Japan, were adopted. In the years before annexation, a self-strengthening movement and government reforms attempted to regain Korean control of the pace and direction of change. However, it was only following the Japanese annexation in 1910 that the rapid social transformation of Korea began.

Rural society was radically transformed. Traditionally, all land belonged to the king and was granted by him to his subjects. Although specific parcels of land tended to remain within the same family from generation to generation (including communal land owned by clans and lineages), land occupancy, use, and ownership patterns often were legally ambiguous and widely divergent from one part of the country to another. There was no institution of private property during the Choson Dynasty. The Japanese, however, conducted a comprehensive land survey between 1910 and 1920 in order to place landownership on a modern legal footing. Farmers whose families had tilled the same soil for generations but could not prove ownership in a way satisfactory to the colonial authorities had their land confiscated. Such land came into the hands of the colonial government, to be sold to Japanese land companies, such as the Oriental Development Company, or to Japanese immigrants. As research by Edward Graegert has shown, however, the survey also helped to confirm, or in some cases even to improve, the position of some members of the existing Korean landlord class. Many were former yangban who cooperated with the Japanese. Those yangban who remained aloof from their country's new overlord often fell into poverty. The farmers themselves either became tenants or were forced to leave the land. During the depression of the 1930s, thousands emigrated to the cities or overseas. Many others fled to the hills to become "fire-field" (slash-and-burn) farmers, living under extremely harsh and primitive conditions. By 1936 this last group numbered more than 1.5 million people.

The Japanese built railroads, highways, schools, and hospitals and established a modern system of administration. These changes were intended to link the colonial economy more effectively to that of Japan. The new, modern sector required technically trained experts. Although the top positions were invariably occupied by Japanese, Koreans worked on the lower levels as secondary technical and administrative personnel. Thus, while the number of Korean high officials in the colonial administration increased from only 354 to 442 people between 1915 and 1942, the number of junior officials increased from 15,543 to 29,998 in the same period. Japan's industrial development policies during the 1930s and 1940s, though concentrated in the northern half of the peninsula adjacent to Manchuria, created a new class of workers and lower-level industrial managers that played an important role in the industrial development of South Korea after 1945.

The great majority of Koreans suffered under Japanese rule. A large number of farmers were forced off their land after 1910; industrial workers and miners working for Japanese-owned firms were often treated little better than slaves. Under colonial agricultural policies, rice cultivation was maximized, although most rice was grown for consumption in Japan.

Nevertheless, development under Japanese colonial rule provided some foundation, however unintentionally, for South Korea's impressive post-1945 economic growth. A small group of Korean entrepreneurs emerged who fostered close ties with the colonial government, and Japanese business interests established family-held firms that were the precursors of South Korea's present-day chaebol, or business conglomerates. It is a tribute to their acumen that these entrepreneurs were able to survive and prosper in a colonial economy dominated overwhelmingly by Japanese capital.

Three developments after 1945 were particularly important for South Korea's social modernization. The first was the land reform carried out by United States and South Korean authorities between 1945 and 1950. The institution of private property was retained, but the American occupation authorities confiscated and redistributed all land held by the Japanese colonial government, Japanese companies, and individual Japanese colonists. The Korean government carried out a reform whereby Koreans with large landholdings were obliged to divest most of their land. A new class of independent, family proprietors was created.

The second development was the great influx from North Korea and other countries of repatriates and refugees. In the 1945-49 period, between 1.5 million and 2 million Koreans returned to South Korea from Japan, the northeast provinces of China, and other foreign countries. With the establishment of a communist state in North Korea, a large number of refugees fled to South Korea and were joined by many more during the Korean War. A conservative estimate of the total number of refugees from the north is 1.2 million. Most of the northerners settled in the cities--new recruits for the country's industrial labor force.

The third development was a direct result of the Korean War. Traditionally Koreans, like their Chinese and unlike their Japanese neighbors, considered the military to be a low-status occupation. Korea did not have its own armed forces during the colonial period, although some Koreans served in the Japanese military, especially after 1941, and a handful, such as former President Park Chung Hee, received officer's training. The North Korean invasion of June 1950 and the three years of fighting that followed cast the South Korean military establishment into the role of savior of the country. And since the coup d'état of May 1961 that established Park Chung Hee, the military establishment has held considerable political power. Roh Tae Woo, elected president in 1987, was a retired general with close connections to the military elite.

Universal military conscription of men has played an important role in South Korea's development, both in political socialization and in integrating a society divided by strong regional prejudices. It also has exposed the nation's young men to technical training and to a disciplined way of life.

During the three decades after Park's 1961 coup d'état, the goal of the military elite was to create a harmonious, disciplined society that is both technically advanced and economically efficient. Economic modernization, however, has brought social changes--especially in education and urbanization- -that have had a corrosive effect on the military's authoritarian view of society and have promoted the emergence of a more contentious, pluralistic society than many in the military have found desirable.

South Korea

South Korea - Social Classes in Contemporary Society

South Korea

Rapid economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization have caused a profound transformation in the class structure of South Korean society since the end of the Korean War. One of the most important changes has been the emergence of a "new" middle class consisting of civil servants, salaried white-collar workers in large private companies, and professionals with specialized training, such as engineers, health care professionals, university professors, architects, and journalists. The number of factory workers also has grown impressively. According to figures provided by Kim Kyong-Dong, a sociologist at Seoul National University, the portion of the population that can be labeled "new middle class" (excluding self-employed professionals) grew from 6.6 percent to 17.7 percent between 1960 and 1980. The proportion of industrial workers expanded from 8.9 percent to 22.6 percent of the labor force during the same period. Independent farmers and members of the rural lower class, including agricultural laborers, experienced corresponding declines in percentage: together, they accounted for 64 percent of the population in 1960 but only 31.3 percent in 1980.

The urban lower class, consisting to a great extent of recent arrivals from rural parts of the country living in squatter areas, composed an estimated 6.6 percent of the population in 1960 and 5.9 percent in 1980. An "old" middle class consisting of shopkeepers and small business proprietors in urban and rural areas, self-employed professionals, and self-employed craftsmen grew modestly from 13 percent to 20.8 percent of the population between 1960 and 1980. Kim's figures also include what he euphemistically calls an "upper-middle" class--the country's economic and social elites, whose numbers grew from 0.9 percent to 1.8 percent of the population between 1960 and 1980.

Another way of viewing contemporary South Korean society is to consider the sources of social inequality. In a 1988 article, Korea specialist David I. Steinberg focused on several of these sources, which include the disparity in living standards between urban and rural areas--the main motivation behind sustained urban migration. Although the Saemaul Movement was successful in narrowing the gap between rural and urban incomes during the mid1970s , disparities subsequently reemerged. Steinberg also noted that despite the land reform of the late 1940s, tenancy has grown, and that by 1981 as many as 46 percent of all farmers were "full or partial tenants."

Discrimination on both the community and individual levels against the people of North Cholla and South Cholla provinces remains a second important source of inequality. Disparities in per capita income between Seoul and the provinces of North and South Kyongsang had virtually disappeared by the early 1980s, but per capita incomes in the capital were still 1.8 times those in the Cholla region in 1983. As in most other Asian (and most Western) countries, gender differences remain another source of major inequalities.

Government control of the financial system has created substantial inequalities between the favored chaebol, which at least until the late 1980s had access to credit at low rates, and capital-starved smaller businesses that had to rely on nonbank sources of credit. Official support of the chaebol as the engines of South Korean economic growth and industrialization was clearly reflected in the differences between salaries and working conditions of employees in large and small enterprises. Also, the Park and Chun regimes' hostile policies toward labor unions kept workers' wages low--and internationally competitive. In Steinberg's words, "the Korean worker has been asked to suffer for the good of society as a whole . . . ." Activists who tried to organize independent unions were harassed, arrested, imprisoned, and frequently tortured by the authorities. During the liberalization that began in 1987, however, the government permitted the establishment of independent labor unions and assumed a new attitude, at times approaching neutrality in labor-management disputes.

Education remained the single most important factor affecting social mobility in the 1990s. With the exception of the military, whose top echelons were educated at the Korea Military Academy, the postwar elites of South Korea shared one characteristic: they were graduates of the most prestigious universities. There was a well-defined hierarchy of such schools, starting with Seoul National University at the top and followed by Yonse University and Korea University (known as Koryo in Korean). Ehwa Woman's University was the top institution for women.

A survey conducted in the mid-1970s by the Korea Development Institute, a research organization funded by the government but having considerable operational independence, revealed that 25 percent of a sample of entrepreneurs and 35 percent of a sample of higher civil servants had attended Seoul National University. The university's control of entry into the government and business elites is comparable to that exercised by the University of Tokyo in Japan. One major difference, however, is that for a Japanese student an extended period of study or residence abroad is not considered advisable because it interrupts one's career "track" within a single bureaucracy or corporation; many prominent South Koreans, however, obtain advanced degrees at universities in the United States and in Western Europe.

The social importance of education is one of the major continuities between traditional and contemporary Korea. People at the top require blue-ribbon educational backgrounds, not only because education gives them the cultural sophistication and technical expertise needed to manage large, complex organizations, but also because subordinates will not work diligently for an uneducated person--especially if subordinates are educated themselves. "Old school ties" are also increasingly necessary for advancement in a highly competitive society. At the bottom of the steep higher-education pyramid are low-prestige "diploma mills" whose graduates have little chance of breaking into elite circles. Yet graduation even from these institutions confers a sort of middle-class status.

Despite impressive increases in university enrollments, the central importance of education credentials for social advancement has tended to widen the gap between the middle and lower classes. Income distribution is more unequal than in Japan or Taiwan, with pronounced disparities between college and secondary-school graduates. Many workers know that their comparatively low wages make it virtually impossible for them to give their children a college education, a heavy financial burden even for middle-class families.

In the workplace, men and women with a middle-school or secondary-school education are often treated with open contempt by university graduate managers. The latter address them with rude or abrupt words whose impact is amplified by the statussensitive nature of the Korean language. The result has been bitter resentment and increasing labor militancy bordering on political opposition to the status quo.

During the 1980s, the concept of minjung (the masses) became prominent in the thinking and rhetoric of radical students, militant labor unionists, activists identified with the Christian churches, and progressive but generally non-Marxist intellectuals. Although its meaning is vague, minjung encompasses not only the urban proletariat in the Marxist sense but also the groups, including farmers, small bourgeoisie, students, and skilled craftsmen, who allegedly have been exploited by the country's numerically small ruling class (the military elite, top bureaucrats, and big business). National elites were viewed as collaborating with foreign (particularly United States and Japanese) capitalists in order to create a situation of permanent dependence on foreign capital. The emphasis on neocolonialist themes by minjung spokespeople drew deeply on South Korean populist, nationalist, and xenophobic sentiments to place the origin of social evils outside the Korean race.

South Korea

South Korea - Traditional Family Life

South Korea

Filial piety (hyo in Korean; xiao in Chinese), the second of the Five Relationships, defined by Mencius as affection between father and son, traditionally has been the normative foundation of Korean family life. Though its influence has diminished over time, this relationship remains vitally important in contemporary South Korea. Entailing a large number of reciprocal duties and responsibilities between the generations of a single family, it generally has been viewed as an unequal relationship in which the son owed the father unquestioning obedience. Neo-Confucianists thought that the subordination of son to father was the expression, on the human level, of an immutable law of the Cosmos. This law also imposed a rigidity on family life.

Family and lineage continuity traditionally was, and to a great extent remains, a supremely important principle. This reflects Mencius's view that of all possible unfilial acts, to deprive one's parents of posterity is the worst. Historically, the Korean family has been patrilineal. The most important concern for the family group was producing a male heir to carry on the family line and to perform ancestor rituals in the household and at the family gravesite. The first son customarily assumed leadership of the family after his father's death and inherited his father's house and a greater portion of land than his younger brothers. This inheritance enabled him to carry out the ritually prescribed obligations to his ancestors.

Ancestor worship was, simultaneously, a social ethic and a religion. In some ways, it was the most optimistic of faiths. It taught that deceased family members do not pass into oblivion, to an afterlife, or, as the Buddhist believe, to rebirth as humans or animals in some remote place, but remain, in spiritual form, securely within the family circle. For traditionally minded Koreans, the presence of the deceased could be an intensely real and personal one. Fear of death was blunted by the consoling thought at even in the grave one would be cared for by one's own people. Succeeding generations had the obligation of remembering the deceased in a yearly cycle of rituals and ceremonies.

Traditionally, the purpose of marriage was to produce a male heir to carry on the family line and not to provide mutual companionship and support for husband and wife. Marriages were arranged. A go-between or matchmaker, usually a middle-aged woman, carried on the negotiations between the two families involved who, because of a very strict law of exogamy, sometimes did not know each other and often lived in different communities. The bride and groom met for the first time at the marriage ceremony, a practice that ended in the cities by the 1930s.

The traditional Korean kinship system, defined by different obligations in relation to ancestor worship, was complex. Anthropologists generally view it in terms of four separate levels, beginning with the household on the lowest level and reaching to the clan, which included a large number of persons often spread over an extensive geographical area. The household, chip or jip in Korean, consisted of husband and wife, their children, and if the husband were the eldest son, his parents as well. The eldest son's household, the stem family, was known as the "big house" (k'unjip), while that of each of the younger sons, a branch family containing husband, wife and children only, was known as the "little house" (chagunjip). It was through the stem family of the eldest son that the main line of descent was traced from generation to generation. The eldest son was responsible for rituals in honor of the ancestors, and his wife was responsible for producing the all-important male heir.

The second level of kinship was the "mourning group" (tangnae), which consisted of all those descendants of a common patrilineal forbearer up to four generations back. Its role was to organize ceremonies at the grave site. These rites included the reading of a formal message by the eldest male descendant of the tangnae progenitor and the offering of elaborate and attractive dishes to the ancestral spirits.

Similar rituals were carried out at the third level of kinship organization, the lineage (p'a). A lineage might comprise only a handful of households, but in some cases included hundreds and even thousands of households. The lineage was responsible for the rites to ancestors of the fifth generation or above, performed at a common grave site. During the Choson Dynasty, the lineage commonly possessed land, grave sites, and buildings. Croplands were allocated to support the ancestral ceremonies. The lineage also performed other functions: the aid of poor or distressed lineage members, the education of children at schools maintained by the p'a, and the supervision of the behavior of younger lineage members. Because most villagers were members of a common lineage during the Choson Dynasty, the p'a performed many of the social services on the local level that are now provided by public schools, police, and social welfare agencies.

The fourth and most inclusive kinship organization was the clan, or, more accurately, the tongjok (surname origin group). Among ordinary South Koreans, this was commonly known as the pongwan, or "clan seat." Members of the same tongjok shared both a surname and origins in the generally remote past. Unlike members of the smaller kinship groups, however, they often lacked strong feelings of solidarity. Important tongjok include the Chonju Yi, who originated in Chonju in North Cholla Province and claimed as their progenitor the founder of the Choson Dynasty, Yi Song-gye; and the Kimhae Kim, who originated in Kimhae in South Kyongsang Province and claimed as their common ancestor either the founder of the ancient kingdom of Kaya or one of the kings of the Silla Dynasty (A.D. 668-935).

Approximately 249 surnames were used by South Koreans in the late 1980s. The most common were Kim (about 22 percent of the population), Li or Yi (15 percent of the population), Pak or Park (8.5 percent), Ch'oe (4.8 percent), and Chong (4.2 percent). There are, however, about 150 surname origin groups bearing the name Kim, 95 with the name Yi, 35 with the name Pak, 40 with the name Ch'oe, and 27 with the name Chong.

In many if not most cases, the real function of the tongjok was to define groups of permissible marriage partners. Because of the strict rule of exogamy, people from the same tongjok were not permitted to marry, even though their closest common ancestors in many cases might have lived centuries ago. This prohibition, which originated during the Choson Dynasty, had legal sanction in present-day South Korea. An amendment to the marriage law proposed by women's and other groups in early 1990 would have changed this situation by prohibiting marriages only between persons who had a common ancestor five generations or less back. However, the amendment, was strongly opposed by conservative Confucian groups, which viewed the exogamy law as a crystallization of traditional Korean values. Among older South Koreans, it is still commonly thought that only uncivilized people marry within their clan group.

South Korea

South Korea - Family and Social Life in the Cities

South Korea

Contemporary urban family and social life in South Korea at the start of the 1990s exhibits a number of departures from traditional family and kinship institutions. One example is the tendency for complex kinship and family structures to weaken or break down and be replaced by structurally simpler twogeneration , nuclear families. Another closely related trend is the movement toward equality in family relations and the resulting improvement in the status of women. Thirdly, there is a movement away from lineage- and neighborhood-based social relations toward functionally based relations. People in the cities no longer work among their relatives or neighbors in the fields or on fishing boats, but among unrelated people in factories, shops and offices. Finally, there is an increasing tendency for an individual's location and personal associations to be transitory and temporary rather than permanent and lifelong, although the importance of school ties is pivotal. There is greater physical mobility as improved transportation facilities, superhighways, and rapid express trains make it possible to travel between cities in a few hours. Subsidiary transportation networks have broken down barriers between onceisolated villages and the urban areas. Mobility in human relations also is becoming more apparent as people change their residences more frequently, often because of employment, and an increasing proportion of the urban population lives in large, impersonal apartment complexes.

Matchmaking was a big business in Seoul and other cities in contemporary society; coffee shops and lounges often were crowded on weekends. In a change from traditional society, prospective brides and grooms held scores of interviews, son pogi, before deciding on the companion they would like to date-for- marriage. Many of these young men and women changed their minds after these dates and the process began again. Yonae, or "love match" marriages occurred with increasing frequency.

Contrary to the Confucian ideal, the nuclear family consisting of a husband, wife, and children is becoming predominant in contemporary South Korea. It differs from the traditional "branch family" or "little house" (chagunjip) for two reasons: the conjugal relationship between husband and wife tends to take precedence over the relationship between the son and his parents, and the nuclear family unit is becoming increasingly independent, both economically and psychologically, of larger kinship groups. These developments have led to greater equality among the family units established by the eldest and younger sons. Whereas the isolated nuclear family was perceived in the past as a sign of poverty and misfortune, the contemporary nuclear family is often viewed as being a conscious choice made by those who do not wish their privacy invaded by intrusive relatives.

Economic relations between the generations of a single family changed radically in the transition from traditional rural to modern urban society. In the past, the male head of the patrilineal family controlled all the property, usually in the form of land, and was generally the sole provider of economic support. With the development of modern industry and services, however, each adult generation and nuclear family unit has become more or less economically independent, although sons might depend upon their parents or even their wife's parents for occasional economic assistance--for example, in purchasing a house. Because urban families usually live apart from their paternal in-laws, even when the householder is the eldest son, the wife no longer has to endure the domination of her mother-in-law and sister-in- law. In many cases, the family is closer to the wife's parents than to the husband's. The modern husband and wife often are closer emotionally than in the old family system. They spend more time together and even go out socially, a formerly unheard-of practice. Yet the expectation still remains that elderly parents will live with one of their children, preferably a son, rather than on their own or in nursing homes. This expectation could change in the last decade of the century, however, with the expansion of health care and social welfare facilities.

Outside the nuclear family, blood relationships still are important, particularly among close relatives, such as members of the same tangnae, or mourning group. Relations with more distant relatives, such as members of the same lineage, tend to be weak, especially if the lineage has its roots in a distant rural village, as most do. Ancestor rites are practiced in urban homes, although for fewer generations than formerly: the majority of urban dwellers seem to conduct rites only in honor of the father and mother of the family head. As a result, there are many fewer ancestors to venerate and far fewer occasions to hold the household ceremonies. In some ways, however, increased geographical mobility has helped to preserve family solidarity. During New Year's, Hansik (Cold Food Day in mid-April), and Ch'usok (the Autumn Harvest Festival in mid-September), the airplanes, trains, and highways in the late 1980s were jammed with people traveling to visit both living relatives and grave sites in their ancestral communities.

South Korea

South Korea - Changing Role of Women

South Korea

During the Koryo and early Choson Dynasties, it was customary for the married couple to live in the wife's parents' household. This arrangement suggests that the status of women was then higher than it was later during most of the Choson Dynasty. Neo- Confucian orthodoxy dictated that the woman, separated from her parents, had a primary duty of providing a male heir for her husband's family. According to Confucian custom, once married, a woman had to leave her parents' household permanently and then occupy the lowest position in her husband's family. She was often abused and mistreated by both her mother-in-law and sisters-in- law--at least until the birth of a son gave her some status in her husband's family. The relationship between wife and husband was often, if not usually, distant, aptly described by the Korean proverb: "By day, like seeing a stranger; by night, like seeing a lover." Choson Dynasty law prohibited widows from remarrying, though a similar prohibition was not extended to widowers. Further, the sons and grandsons of widows who defied the ban, like children of secondary wives, were not allowed to take the civil service examinations and become scholar-officials.

The duty of a woman to her husband, or rather to her husband's family, was absolute and unquestionable. In the traditional society, only men could obtain a divorce. A husband could divorce his spouse if she were barren--barrenness being defined simply as the inability to bear sons. Even if a husband did not divorce his wife, he had the right to take a second wife, although the preferred solution for a man without a son during the Choson Dynasty was to adopt a son of one of his brothers, if available. The incompatibility of a wife and her in-laws was another ground for divorce.

In contemporary society, both men and women have the right to obtain a divorce. Social and economic discrimination, however, make the lot of divorced women more difficult. The husband may still demand custody of the children, although a revision of the Family Law in 1977 made it more difficult for him to coerce or to deceive his wife into agreeing to an unfair settlement. The rate of divorce in South Korea is increasing rapidly. In 1975 the number of divorces was 17,000. In the mid-1980s, the annual number of divorces was between 23,000 and 26,000, and in 1987 there were 45,000 divorces.

The tradition of total female submission persisted in Korean villages until relatively recent times. One Korean scholar who came from the conservative Ch'ungch'ong region south of Seoul recalled that when a high school friend died of sickness during the 1940s, his young bride committed suicide. Her act was commemorated in her own and the surrounding communities as an outstanding example of devotion to duty.

Traditionally, men and women were strictly segregated, both inside and outside the house. Yangban women spent most of their lives in seclusion in the women's chamber. It is said that the traditional pastime of nolttwigi, a game of jumping up and down on a seesaw-like contraption, originated among bored women who wanted to peek over the high walls of their family compounds to see what the outside world was like. Economic necessity gave women of the lower classes some freedom as they participated in farm work and sometimes earned supplemental income through making and selling things.

A small minority of women played an active role in society and even wielded political influence. These people included female shamans (mudang), who were called upon to cure illnesses, tell fortunes, or in other ways enlist the help of spirits in realizing the wishes of their clients. Despite its sponsorship of neo-Confucianism, the Choson Dynasty had an office of shamanism, and female shamans often were quite influential in the royal palace. The female physicians who treated female patients (because male physicians were forbidden to examine them) constituted another important group of women. Sometimes they acted as spies or policewomen because they could get into the female quarters of a house. Still another group of women were the kisaeng. Some kisaeng, or entertainers, were merely prostitutes; but others, like their Japanese counterparts the geisha, were talented musicians, dancers, painters, and poets and interacted on nearly equal terms with their male patrons. The kisaeng tradition perpetuated one of the more dubious legacies of the Confucian past: an extreme double standard concerning the sexual behavior of married men and women that still persists. In the cities, however, many middle class women have begun to break with these traditions.

An interesting regional variation on traditional female roles continued in the late 1980s. In the coastal villages of Cheju Island, women divers swam in search of seaweed, oysters, and other marine products and were economically self-sufficient. Often they provided the main economic support for the family while the husband did subsidiary work--took care of the children and did household chores--in sharp contrast to the Confucian norm. The number of women divers was dwindling, however, and men were increasingly performing jobs in service industries. Confucian ancestor worship was rarely practiced while female- centered shamanistic rites were widespread.

The factories of South Korea employ hundreds of thousands of young women on shop floors and assembly lines making, among other things, textiles and clothes, shoes, and electronic components. South Korea's economic success was bought in large measure with the sweat of these generally overworked and poorly paid female laborers. In the offices of banks and other service enterprises, young women working as clerks and secretaries are indispensable. Unlike their sisters on Cheju Island, however, the majority of these women work only until marriage.

Although increasing numbers of women work outside the home, the dominant conception, particularly for the college-educated middle class, is that the husband is the "outside person," the one whose employment provides the main source of economic support; the wife is the "inside person," whose chief responsibility is maintenance of the household. Women tend to leave the labor force when they get married. Many women manage the family finances, and a large number join kye, informal private short-term credit associations that give them access to funds that might not be obtainable from a conventional bank. Probably the most important responsibility of married women is the management of their children's education.

On the surface, Korean women often appear docile, submissive, and deferential to the wishes of their husbands and in-laws. Yet behind the scenes, there is often considerable "hidden" female power, particularly within the private sphere of the household. In areas such as household finances, South Korean husbands usually defer to their wives' judgment. Public assertion of a woman's power, however, is socially disapproved, and a traditional wife maintained the image, if not the reality of submissiveness. And, as in other male-dominated societies, Korean men often jokingly complain that they are henpecked.

In traditional Korean society, women received little formal education. Christian missionaries began establishing schools for girls during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ehwa Woman's University, the most prestigious women's institution, began as a primary school established by Methodist missionaries in 1886 and achieved university status after 1945. Chongsin Girls' School and Paehwa Girls' School were founded in 1890 and 1898, respectively, in Seoul. Songui Girls' School was established in 1903 in P'yongyang. By 1987 there were ten institutions of higher education for women including universities, colleges, and junior colleges; women accounted for approximately 28 percent of total enrollment in higher education. There were approximately 262,500 women students in colleges and universities in 1987. However, only about 16 percent of college and university teachers were women in 1987.

The growing number of women receiving a college education has meant that their sex role differs from that of their mothers and grandmothers. Many college-educated women plan independent careers and challenge the right of parents to choose a marriage partner. The often fierce battles between university students and police during the late 1980s included female participants. A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review quoted a male student leader as saying that "short girls make great demonstrators, as they're very tough and very hard to catch." Whether politically active South Korean university women will follow their Japanese counterparts, who demonstrated during the 1960s and 1970s, into a world of childraising and placid consumerism remains to be seen. The number of employed married women, however, increased by approximately 12.6 percent annually in the years since 1977.

In 1983 more women--51.8 percent--were employed in rural areas than in urban areas--37.9 percent. Most of the women working in rural areas were over the age of thirty, as young females (and males) tended to move to, and seek employment in, cities and industrial areas.

Official South Korean statistics indicated that 43.6 percent of women were in the work force by 1988. Prospects for lower class women, however, were frequently grim. In some cases, they were obliged to become part of the "entertainment industry" in order to survive economically. According to one estimate, brothels, bars, massage parlors, discos, and what are known as "Taiwan style" barbershops (that is, those often employing a greater number of masseuses than barbers) employed as many as 1 million women, though not all were prostitutes. This underworld of abuse, exploitation, and bitter shame had begun to be criticized and exposed by women's activists.

South Korea


South Korea

South Korea's homogeneous population shares a common ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage. National self-image is, on one level, unambiguously defined by the convergence of territorial, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities. Yet intense feelings of nationalism, so evident in athletic events like the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympic Games held in Seoul, revealed anxiety as well as pride concerning South Korea's place in the world. More than Western peoples and even more than the Japanese, South Korean individuals are inclined to view themselves as a tightly knit national community with a common destiny. In a rapidly changing world, however, it is often difficult for them to define exactly what being a South Korean is. To outsiders, the intense concern with identity is perhaps difficult to understand; it reflects a history of subordinate relations to powerful foreign states and the tragedy of national division after World War II.

Many modernized, urban-dwelling South Koreans embark on a search for the "essence" of their culture, which commonly expresses itself as hostility to foreign influences. For example, the poet Kim Chi-ha, whose opposition to the Park regime in the 1970s was a model for a younger generation of dissidents, attacked the government as much for its neglect of traditional values as for its antidemocratic tendencies.

Seoul has not been slow to employ traditionalism for its own ends. In 1987 the government adopted guidelines for the revision of history textbooks instructing publishers to describe the foundation of the Korean nation by Tan'gun in 2333 B.C. as "a reflection of historical facts" rather than simply a myth. The legendary Tan'gun was, according to the myth, the son of god and a bear-woman. According to a Far Eastern Economic Review commentator, ". . . people ranging from reputable university scholars to chauvinist mystics regard Tan'gun as the personification of ethics and values that emphasize a native Korean identity against the foreign religions and philosophies of Buddhism, neo-Confucianism, Christianity and Marxism that have otherwise dominated Korean history and thought." Tangun's legendary kingdom is older than China's first legendary dynasty, the Xia (2205-1766 B.C.), and its antiquity asserts Korea's cultural autonomy in relation to its largest neighbor. There have been proposals that the government subsidize the rites of the numerically small community of believers in Taejonggyo and other cults that worship Tan'gun.

Problems of cultural identity are closely connected to the tragedy of Korea's division into two hostile states. Many members of the younger generation of South Koreans born after the Korean War fervently embrace the cause of t'ongil, or reunification, and believe that it is the superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, who are to blame for Korea's national division. The South Korean government's dependence on the United States has been cited as one of the principal reasons for the lack of improvement in north-south ties. While a majority of South Koreans remains suspicious of the North Koreans, many South Koreans also share the sentiments expressed by Kim Chi-ha: "our name is division, and this soiled name, like an immovable destiny, oppresses all of us." When parts of the wall dividing East Berlin and West Berlin were knocked down in November 1989, Koreans reflected sadly that breaching the DMZ would not be such a simple task.

Korea and Japan

National or ethnic groups often need an "other," a group of outsiders against whom they can define themselves. While Western countries with their individualistic and, from a Confucian perspective, self-centered ways of life provide important images of "otherness" for South Koreans, the principal source of such images for many years has been Japan. Attitudes toward Japan as an "other" are complex. On the most basic level, there is hostility fed by memories of invasion and colonial oppression, present-day economic frictions, and the Japanese government's inability or unwillingness to do anything about discriminatory treatment of the large Korean minority in Japan. The two countries have a long history of hostility. Admiral Yi Sun-sin, whose armor-plated boats eventually defeated the Japanese navy's damaging attacks in the 1590s, was South Korea's most revered national hero.

The Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture's adoption in the 1980s of revised textbook guidelines, softening the language used to describe Japan's aggression during World War II, inspired outrage in South Korea as well as in other Asian countries. The textbook controversy was a major impetus for a national campaign to build an Independence Hall, located about 100 kilometers south of Seoul, to keep alive memories of Japanese colonial exploitation. Opened on August 15, 1987, the anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan, the building houses grim exhibits depicting the atrocities of the Japanese military against Korean nationalists during the colonial period.

During the colonial period, and particularly during World War II, the Japanese initiated assimilation policies designed to turn Koreans into obedient subjects of the Japanese emperor. Under the slogan Nissen ittai (Japan and Korea as One), newspapers and magazines published in the Korean language were closed, the Korean Language Society was disbanded, and Korean writers were forced to publish only in Japanese. Students who spoke Korean in school were punished. There was pressure to speak Japanese at home, adopt Japanese family and given names, and worship at Shinto shrines, the religious basis for which had been transplanted from the home islands. Korean Christians who refused to show reverence to the emperor as a divinity were imprisoned or ostracized. In the words of historian Ki-baik Lee (called Yi Kibeck in Korean), "Japan's aim was to eradicate consciousness of Korean national identity, roots and all, and thus to obliterate the very existence of the Korean people from the face of the earth."

This shared historical experience has provoked not only hostility but also a desire to purge Korean culture of lingering Japanese influences. In the late 1980s, the government continued to prohibit the distribution of Japanese-made movies and popular music within the country in order to prevent unwanted contemporary influences from crossing the Korea Strait.

On a more polite level, depiction of Japan as the "other" involves contrasting the "essences" of the two countries' cultures. This process has spawned a popular literature that compares, among other things, the naturalness and "resonance" of Korean art and music and the alleged imitativeness and constriction of their Japanese counterparts; the "individualism" (of a non-Western sort) of Koreans and the "collectivism" or group consciousness of the Japanese; and the lyric contrast between the rose of Sharon, Korea's national flower, which blooms robustly all summer long, and the Japanese cherry blossom, which has the "beauty of frailty" in springtime.

The search for a cultural "essence" involves serious contradictions. The literature of Korean cultural distinction is strikingly similar to Japanese attempts to prove the "uniqueness" of their own cultural heritage, although "proof" of Japan's uniqueness is usually drawn from examples of Western countries (the significant "other" for modernized Japanese). Ironically, official and unofficial sponsorship of the Tangun myth, although a minor theme, bears an uncanny resemblance to pre World War II Japanese policies promoting historical interpretations of the nation's founding based on Shinto mythology.

Mixed in with feelings of hostility and competition, however, is genuine admiration for Japanese economic, technological, and social achievements. Japan has become an important market for South Korean manufactured products. Both countries have been targets of criticism by Western governments accusing them of unfair trading practices. Friendly interest in South Korea is growing among the Japanese public despite old prejudices, and large numbers of young Japanese and South Koreans visit each others' countries on school and college excursions. Like South Koreans, Japanese liberals have been disturbed by official attempts to revise wartime history.

The Korean Language

Modern Korean language is descended from the language of the Silla Kingdom, which unified the peninsula in the seventh century. As Korean linguist Yi Ki-mun notes, the more remote origins of the Korean language are disputed, although many Korean linguists together with a few western scholars, continue to favor the now widely-contested nineteenth-century theory of an Altaic family of languages supposed to include Korean, Japanese, and Mongolian, among other languages. Although a historical relationship between Korean and Japanese has not been established, modern Korean and Japanese have many similar grammatical features, no doubt in part due to close contacts between the two during the past century. These similarities have given rise to considerable speculation in the popular press. The linguist Kim Chin-wu, for example, has hypothesized that Korea and Japan stood at the end of two routes of large-scale migration in ancient times: a northern route from Inner Asia and southern route from southern China or Southeast Asia. In a variant on the "southern origins" theory of some Japanese scholars, he views the two languages as reflecting disparate "northern" and "southern" influences, with Korean showing more influence from the northern, Inner Asian strain.

Both Korean and Japanese possess what is sometimes called "polite" or "honorific" language, the use of different levels of speech in addressing persons of superior, inferior, or equal rank. These distinctions depend both on the use of different vocabulary and upon basic structural differences in the words employed. For example, in Korean the imperative "go" can be rendered kara when speaking to an inferior or a child, kage when speaking to an adult inferior, kaseyo when speaking to a superior, and kasipsio when speaking to a person of still higher rank. The proper use of polite language, or levels of polite speech, is an extremely complex and subtle matter. The Korean language, like Japanese, is extremely sensitive to the nuances of hierarchical human relationships. Two persons who meet for the first time are expected to use the more distant or formal terms, but they will shift to more informal or "equal" terms if they become friends. Younger people invariably use formal language in addressing elders; the latter will use "inferior" terms in "talking down" to those who are younger.

The Korean language may be written using a mixture of Chinese ideograms (hancha) and a native Korean alphabet known as han'gul, or in han'gul alone, much as in a more limited way Indo-European languages sometimes write numbers using Arabic symbols and at other times spell numbers out in their own alphabets or in some combination of the two forms. Han'gul was invented by scholars at the court of King Sejong (1418-50), not solely to promote literacy among the common people as is sometimes claimed, but also, as Professor Gari K. Ledyard has noted, to assist in studies of Chinese historical phonology. According to a perhaps apocryphal decree of the king, an intelligent man could learn han'gul in a morning's time, while even a fool could master it in ten days. As a result, it was scorned by scholars and relegated to women and merchants. The script, which in its modern form contains forty symbols, is considered by linguists to be one of the most scientific ever devised; it reflects quite consistently the phonemes of the spoken Korean language.

Because of its greater variety of sounds, Korean does not have the problem of the Japanese written language, which some experts have argued needs to retain a sizable inventory of Chinese characters to distinguish a large number of potentially ambiguous homophones. Since 1948 the continued use of Chinese characters in South Korea has been criticized by linguistic nationalists and some educators and defended by cultural conservatives, who fear that the loss of character literacy could cut younger generations off from a major part of their cultural heritage. Since the early 1970s, Seoul's policy governing the teaching and use of Chinese characters has shifted several times, although the trend clearly has been toward writing in han'gul alone. By early 1990, all but academic writing used far fewer Chinese characters than was the case in the 1960s. In 1989 the Korean Language and Education Research Association, citing the need for Chinese character literacy "at a time when the nation is entering into keen competition with Japan and China" and noting that Japanese educators were increasing the number of Chinese characters taught in elementary schools, recommended to the Ministry of Education that instruction in Chinese characters be reintroduced at the primary-school level.

Although the Korean and Chinese languages are not related in terms of grammatical structure, more than 50 percent of all Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese loanwords, a reflection of the cultural dominance of China over 2 millennia. In many cases there are two words--a Chinese loanword and an indigenous Korean word--meaning the same thing. The Chinese-based word in Korean sometimes has a bookish or formal flavor. Koreans select one or the other variant to achieve the proper register in speech or in writing, and to make subtle distinctions of meaning in accordance with established usage.

Large numbers of Chinese character compounds coined in Japan in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries to translate modern Western scientific, technical, and political vocabulary came into use in Korea during the colonial period. Post-1945 United States influence has been reflected in a number of English words that have been absorbed into Korean.

Unlike Chinese, Korean does not encompass dialects that are mutually unintelligible, with the possible exception of the variant spoken on Cheju Island. There are, however, regional variations both in vocabulary and pronunciation, the range being comparable to the differences that might be found between Maine and Alabama in the United States. Despite several decades of universal education, similar variations also have been heard between highly educated and professional speakers and Koreans of working class or rural backgrounds. Standard Korean is derived from the language spoken in and around Seoul. More than forty years of division has meant that there are also some divergences in the development of the Korean language north and south of the DMZ.

South Korea

South Korea - EDUCATION

South Korea

Like other East Asian countries with a Confucian heritage, South Korea has had a long history of providing formal education. Although there was no state-supported system of primary education, the central government established a system of secondary schools in Seoul and the provinces during the Choson Dynasty. State schools suffered a decline in quality, however, and came to be supplanted in importance by the sowon, private academies that were the centers of a neo-Confucian revival in the sixteenth century. Students at both private and state-supported secondary schools were exempt from military service and had much the same social prestige as university students enjoy today in South Korea. Like modern students, they were frequently involved in politics. Higher education was provided by the Confucian national university in the capital, the Songgyungwan. Its enrollment was limited to 200 students who had passed the lower civil service examinations and were preparing for the higher examinations.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, modern private schools were established both by Koreans and by foreign Christian missionaries. The latter were particularly important because they promoted the education of women and the diffusion of Western social and political ideas. Japanese educational policy after 1910 was designed to turn Koreans into obedient colonial subjects and to teach them limited technical skills. A state university modeled on Tokyo Imperial University was established in Seoul in 1923, but the number of Koreans allowed to study there never exceeded 40 percent of its enrollment; 60 percent of its students were Japanese expatriates.

When United States military forces occupied the southern half of the Korean Peninsula in 1945, they established a school system based on the American model: six years of primary school, six years of secondary school (divided into junior and senior levels), and four years of higher education. Other occupation period reforms included coeducation at all levels, popularly elected school boards in local areas, and compulsory education up to the ninth grade. The government of Syngman Rhee reversed many of these reforms after 1948, when only primary schools remained in most cases coeducational and, because of a lack of resources, education was compulsory only up to the sixth grade. The school system in 1990, however, reflects that which was established under the United States occupation.

During the years when Rhee and Park Chung Hee were in power, the control of education was gradually taken out of the hands of local school boards and concentrated in a centralized Ministry of Education. In the late 1980s, the ministry was responsible for administration of schools, allocation of resources, setting of enrollment quotas, certification of schools and teachers, curriculum development (including the issuance of textbook guidelines), and other basic policy decisions. Provincial and special city boards of education still existed. Although each board was composed of seven members who were supposed to be selected by popularly elected legislative bodies, this arrangement ceased to function after 1973. Subsequently, school board members were approved by the minister of education.

Most observers agree that South Korea's spectacular progress in modernization and economic growth since the Korean War is largely attributable to the willingness of individuals to invest a large amount of resources in education: the improvement of "human capital." The traditional esteem for the educated man, originally confined to the Confucian scholar as a cultured generalists, now extend to scientists, technicians, and others working with specialized knowledge. Highly educated technocrats and economic planners could claim much of the credit for their country's economic successes since the 1960s. Scientific professions were generally regarded as the most prestigious by South Koreans in the 1980s.

Statistics demonstrate the success of South Korea's national education programs. In 1945 the adult literacy rate was estimated at 22 percent; by 1970 adult literacy was 87.6 percent, and by the late 1980s various sources estimated it at around 93 percent. South Korean students have performed exceedingly well in international competitions in mathematics and science. Although only primary school (grades one through six) was compulsory, percentages of age-groups of children and young people enrolled in primary, secondary, and tertiary level schools were equivalent to those found in industrialized countries, including Japan. Approximately 4.8 million students in the eligible age-group were attending primary school in 1985. The percentage of students going on to optional middle school the same year was more than 99 percent. Approximately 34 percent, one of the world's highest rates of secondary-school graduates attended institutions of higher education in 1987, a rate similar to Japan's (about 30 percent) and exceeding Britain's (20 percent).

Government expenditure on education has been generous. In 1975 it was W220 billion (for value of the won), the equivalent of 2.2 percent of the gross national product (GNP), or 13.9 percent of total government expenditure. By 1986 education expenditure had reached won 3.76 trillion, or 4.5 percent of the GNP, and 27.3 percent of government budget allocations.

Social emphasis on education was not, however, without its problems, as it tended to accentuate class differences. In the late 1980s, possession of a college degree was considered necessary for entering the middle class; there were no alternative pathways of social advancement, with the possible exception of a military career, outside higher education. People without a college education, including skilled workers with vocational school backgrounds, often were treated as second-class citizens by their white-collar, college-educated managers, despite the importance of their skills for economic development. Intense competition for places at the most prestigious universities--the sole gateway into elite circles--promoted, like the old Confucian system, a sterile emphasis on rote memorization in order to pass secondary school and college entrance examinations. Particularly after a dramatic expansion of college enrollments in the early 1980s, South Korea faced the problem of what to do about a large number of young people kept in school for a long time, usually at great sacrifice to themselves and their families, and then faced with limited job opportunities because their skills were not marketable.

Primary and Secondary Schools

In the late 1980s, primary schools were coeducational, although coeducation was quite rare at the middle-school and high-school levels. Enrollment figures for 1987 on the primaryschool level were 4,771,722 pupils in 6,531 schools, with 130,142 teachers. A decline from the 1980 figure of 5,658,002 pupils was caused by population trends. Some 54 percent of primary school teachers were male.

In 1987 there were approximately 4,895,354 students enrolled in middle schools and high schools, with approximately 150,873 teachers. About 69 percent of these teachers were male. The secondary-school enrollment figure also reflected changing population trends--there were 3,959,975 students in secondary schools in 1979. Given the importance of entry into higher education, the majority of students attended general or academic high schools in 1987: 1,397,359 students, or 60 percent of the total, attended general or academic high schools, as compared with 840,265 students in vocational secondary schools. Vocational schools specialized in a number of fields: primarily agriculture, fishery, commerce, trades, merchant marine, engineering, and the arts.

Enrollment in kindergartens or preschools expanded impressively during the 1980s. In 1980 there were 66,433 children attending 901 kindergartens or preschools. By 1987 there were 397,020 children in 7,792 institutions. The number of kindergarten and preschool teachers rose from 3,339 to 11,920 during the same period. The overwhelming majority of these teachers--approximately 92 percent--were women. This growth was attributable to several factors: Ministry of Education encouragement of preschool education, the greater number of women entering the work force, growth in the number of nuclear families where a grandparent was often unavailable to take care of children, and the feeling that kindergarten might give children an "edge" in later educational competition. Kindergartens often paid homage to the expectations of parents with impressive graduation ceremonies, complete with diplomas, academic caps, and gowns.

Competitive entrance examinations at the middle-school level were abolished in 1968. Although as of the late 1980s, students still had to pass noncompetitive qualifying examinations, they were assigned to secondary institutions by lottery, or else by location within the boundary of the school district. Secondary schools, formerly ranked according to the quality of their students, have been equalized, with a portion of good, mediocre, and poor students being assigned to each one. The reform, however, did not equalize secondary schools completely. In Seoul, students who performed well in qualifying examinations were allowed to attend better quality schools in a "common" district, while other students attended schools in one of five geographical districts. The reforms applied equally to public and private schools whose enrollments were strictly controlled by the Ministry of Education.

Although primary- and secondary-school teachers traditionally enjoyed high status, they often were overworked and underpaid during the late 1980s. Salaries were less than those for many other white-collar professions and even some blue-collar jobs. High school teachers, particularly those in the cities, however, received sizable gifts from parents seeking attention for their children, but teaching hours were long and classes crowded (the average class contained around fifty to sixty students).

In May 1989, teachers established an independent union, the National Teachers Union (NTU--Chon'gyojo). Their aims included improving working conditions and reforming a school system that they regarded as overly controlled by the Ministry of Education. Although the government promised large increases in allocations for teachers' salaries and facilities, it refused to give the union legal status. Because teachers were civil servants, the government claimed they did not have the right to strike and, even if they did have the right to strike, unionization would undermine the status of teachers as "role models" for young Koreans. The government also accused the union of spreading subversive, leftist propaganda that was sympathetic to the communist regime in North Korea.

According to a report in the Asian Wall Street Journal, the union claimed support from 82 percent of all teachers. The controversy was viewed as representing a major crisis for South Korean education because a large number of teachers (1,500 by November 1989) had been dismissed, violence among union supporters, opponents, and police had occurred at several locations, and class disruptions had caused anxieties for families of students preparing for the college entrance examinations. The union's challenge to the Ministry of Education's control of the system and the charges of subversion had made compromise seem a very remote possibility at the start of 1990.

Higher Education

In the late 1980s, the university a South Korean high school graduate attended was perhaps the single most important factor in determining his or her life chances. Thus, entrance into a prestigious institution was the focus of intense energy, dedication, and self-sacrifice. Prestigious institutions included the state-run Seoul National University, originally established by the Japanese as Seoul Imperial University in 1923, and a handful of private institutions such as Yonse University, Koryo University (more commonly called Korea University in English), and Ehwa Woman's University.

Because college entrance depends upon ranking high in objectively graded examinations, high school students face an "examination hell," a harsh regimen of endless cramming and rote memorization of facts that is probably even more severe than the one faced by their counterparts in Japan. Unlike the Confucian civil service examinations of the Choson Dynasty, their modern reincarnation is a matter of importance not for an elite, but for the substantial portion of the population with middle-class aspirations. In the late 1980s, over one-third of college-age men and women (35.2 percent in 1989) succeeded in entering and attending institutions of higher education; those who failed faced dramatically reduced prospects for social and economic advancement.

The number of students in higher education had risen from 100,000 in 1960 to 1.3 million in 1987, and the proportion of college-age students in higher-education institutions was second only to the United States. The institutions of higher education included regular four-year colleges and universities, two-year junior vocational colleges, four-year teachers' colleges, and graduate schools. The main drawback was that college graduates wanted careers that would bring them positions of leadership in society, but there simply were not enough positions to accommodate all graduates each year and many graduates were forced to accept lesser positions. Ambitious women especially were frustrated by traditional barriers of sex discrimination as well as the lack of positions.

A college-bound high school student, in the late 1980s, typically rose at dawn, did a bit of studying before school began at 7:30 or 8:00 A.M., attended school until 5:00 P.M., had a quick dinner (often away from home), and then attended evening cramming classes that could last until 10:00 or 11:00 P.M. Sundays and holidays were devoted to more cramming. Because tests given in high school (generally once every two or four weeks) were almost as important in determining college entrance as the final entrance examinations, students had no opportunity to relax from the study routine. According to one contemporary account, a student had to memorize 60 to 100 pages of facts to do well on these periodic tests. Family and social life generally were sacrificed to the supreme end of getting into the best university possible.

The costs of the "examination hell" have been evident not only in a grim and joyless adolescence for many, if not most, young South Koreans, but also in the number of suicides caused by the constant pressure of tests. Often suicides have been top achievers who despaired after experiencing a slump in test performance. Also, the multiple choice format of periodic high school tests and university entrance examinations has left students little opportunity to develop their creative talents. A "facts only" orientation has promoted a cramped and unspontaneous view of the world that has tended to spill over into other areas of life than academic work.

The prospects for basic change in the system--a deemphasis on tests--were unlikely in the late 1980s. The great virtue of facts-based testing is its objectivity. Though harsh, the system is believed to be fair and impartial. The use of nonobjective criteria such as essays, personal recommendations, and the recognition of success in extracurricular activities or personal recommendations from teachers and others could open up all sorts of opportunities for corruption. In a society where social connections are extremely important, connections rather than merit might determine entry into a good university. Students who survive the numbing regimen of examinations under the modern system are at least universally acknowledged to have deserved their educational success. Top graduates who have assumed positions of responsibility in government and business have lent, through their talents, legitimacy to the whole system.

Following the assumption of power by General Chun Doo Hwan in 1980, the Ministry of Education implemented a number of reforms designed to make the system more fair and to increase higher education opportunities for the population at large. In a very popular move, the ministry dramatically increased enrollment at large. The number of high school graduates accepted into colleges and universities was increased from almost 403,000 students in 1980 to more than 1.4 million in 1989. This reform decreased, temporarily, the acceptance ratio from one college place for every four applicants in 1980 to one for every three applicants in 1981. In 1980 the number of students attending all kinds of higher educational institutions was almost 600,000; that number grew almost 100 percent to 1,061,403 students by 1983. By 1987 there were 1,340,381 students attending higher educational institutions. By 1987 junior colleges had an enrollment of almost 260,000 students; colleges and universities had an enrollment of almost 990,000 students; other higher education institutions enrolled the balance.

A second reform was the prohibition of private, after-school tutoring. Formerly, private tutors could charge exorbitant rates if they had a good "track record" of getting students into the right schools through intensive coaching, especially in English and in mathematics. This situation gave wealthy families an unfair advantage in the competition. Under the new rules, students receiving tutoring could be suspended from school and their tutors dismissed from their jobs. There was ample evidence in the mid-1980s, however, that the law had simply driven the private tutoring system underground and made the fees more expensive. Some underpaid teachers and cash-starved students at prestigious institutions were willing to run the risk of punishment in order to earn as much as W300,000 to W500,000 a month. Students and their parents took the risk of being caught, believing that coaching in weak subject areas could give students the edge needed to get into a better university. By the late 1980s, however, the tutorial system seemed largely to have disappeared.

A third reform was much less popular. The ministry established a graduation quota system, in which increased freshman enrollments were counterbalanced by the requirement that each four-year college or university fail the lowest 30 percent of its students; junior colleges were required to fail the lowest 15 percent. These quotas were required no matter how well the lowest 30 or 15 percent of the students did in terms of objective standards. Ostensibly designed to ensure the quality of the increased number of college graduates, the system also served, for a while to discourage students from devoting their time to political movements. Resentment of the quotas was widespread and family counterpressures intense. The government abolished the quotas in 1984.

College Student Activism

Student activism has a long and honorable history in Korea. Students in Choson Dynasty secondary schools often became involved in the intense factional struggles of the scholarofficial class. Students played a major role in Korea's independence movement, particularly the March 1, 1919, countrywide demonstrations that were harshly suppressed by the Japanese military police. Students protested against the Rhee and Park regimes during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Observers noted, however, that while student activists in the past generally embraced liberal and democratic values, the new generation of militants in the 1980s were far more radical. Most participants have adopted some version of the minjung ideology that was heavily influenced by Marxism, Western "dependence theory," and Christian "liberation theology," but was also animated by strong feelings of popular nationalism and xenophobia.

The most militant university students, perhaps about 5 percent of the total enrollment at Seoul National University and comparable figures at other institutions in the capital during the late 1980s, were organized into small circles or cells rarely containing more than fifty members. Police estimated that there were seventy-two such organizations of varying orientation.

South Korea

South Korea - RELIGION

South Korea


Koreans, like other East Asians, have traditionally been eclectic rather than exclusive in their religious commitments. Their religious outlook has not been conditioned by a single, exclusive faith but by a combination of indigenous beliefs and creeds imported into Korea. Belief in a world inhabited by spirits is probably the oldest form of Korean religious life, dating back to prehistoric times. There is a rather unorganized pantheon of literally millions of gods, spirits, and ghosts, ranging from the "god generals" who rule the different quarters of heaven to mountain spirits (sansin). This pantheon also includes gods who inhabit trees, sacred caves, and piles of stones, as well as earth spirits, the tutelary gods of households and villages, mischievous goblins, and the ghosts of persons who in many cases met violent or tragic ends. These spirits are said to have the power to influence or to change the fortunes of living men and women.

Korean shamans are similar in many ways to those found in Siberia, Mongolia, and Manchuria. They also resemble the yuta found on the Ryukyu Islands, in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. Cheju Island is also a center of shamanism.

Shamans, most of whom are women, are enlisted by those who want the help of the spirit world. Female shamans (mudang) hold kut, or services, in order to gain good fortune for clients, cure illnesses by exorcising evil spirits, or propitiate local or village gods. Such services are also held to guide the spirit of a deceased person to heaven.

Often a woman will become a shaman very reluctantly--after experiencing a severe physical or mental illness that indicates "possession" by a spirit. Such possession allegedly can be cured only through performance of a kut. Once a shaman is established in her profession, she usually can make a good living.

Many scholars regard Korean shamanism as less a religion than a "medicine" in which the spirits are manipulated in order to achieve human ends. There is no notion of salvation or moral and spiritual perfection, at least for the ordinary believers in spirits. The shaman is a professional who is consulted by clients whenever the need is felt. Traditionally, shamans had low social status and were members of the ch'ommin class. This discrimination has continued into modern times.

Animistic beliefs are strongly associated with the culture of fishing villages and are primarily a phenomenon found in rural communities. Shamans also treat the ills of city people, however, especially recent migrants from the countryside who find adjustment to an impersonal urban life stressful. The government has discouraged belief in shamanism as superstition and for many years minimized its persistence in Korean life. Yet in a climate of growing nationalism and cultural self-confidence, the dances, songs, and incantations that compose the kut have come to be recognized as an important aspect of Korean culture. Beginning in the 1970s, rituals that formerly had been kept out of foreign view began to resurface, and occasionally a Western hotel manager or other executive could even be seen attending a shamanistic exorcism ritual in the course of opening a new branch in Seoul. Some of these aspects of kut have been designated valuable cultural properties that should be preserved and passed on to future generations.

The future of shamanism itself was uncertain in the late 1980s. Observers believed that many of its functions in the future probably will be performed by the psychiatric profession as the government expands mental health treatment facilities. Given the uncertainty of social, economic, and political conditions, however, it appears certain that shamans will find large numbers of clients for some time to come.

Daoism and Buddhism

Daoism, which focuses on the individual in nature rather than the individual in society, and Buddhism entered Korea from China during the Three Kingdoms period (fourth to seventh centuries A.D.). Daoist motifs are seen in the paintings on the walls of Koguryo tombs. Buddhism was the dominant religious and cultural influence during the Silla (A.D. 668-935) and Koryo (918-1392) dynasties. Confucianism also was brought to Korea from China in early centuries, but it occupied a subordinate position until the establishment of the Choson Dynasty and the persecution of Buddhism carried out by the early Choson Dynasty kings.


Roman Catholic missionaries did not arrive in Korea until 1794, a decade after the return of the first baptized Korean from a visit to Beijing. However, the writings of the Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, who was resident at the imperial court in Beijing, had been brought to Korea from China in the seventeenth century. It appears that scholars of the Sirhak, or practical learning, school were interested in these writings. Largely because converts refused to perform Confucian ancestor rites, the government prohibited the proselytization of Christianity. Some Catholics were executed during the early nineteenth century, but the anti-Christian law was not strictly enforced. By the 1860s, there were some 17,500 Roman Catholics in the country. There followed a more rigorous persecution, in which thousands of Christians died, that continued until 1884.

Protestant missionaries entered Korea during the 1880s and, along with Catholic priests, converted a remarkable number of Koreans. Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries were especially successful. They established schools, universities, hospitals, and orphanages and played a significant role in the modernization of the country. During the Japanese colonial occupation, Christians were in the front ranks of the struggle for independence. Factors contributing to the growth of Protestantism included the degenerate state of Korean Buddhism, the efforts made by educated Christians to reconcile Christian and Confucian values (the latter being viewed as purely a social ethic rather than a religion), the encouragement of self-support and selfgovernment among members of the Korean church, and the identification of Christianity with Korean nationalism.

A large number of Christians lived in the northern part of the peninsula where Confucian influence was not as strong as in the south. Before 1948 P'yongyang was an important Christian center: one-sixth of its population of about 300,000 people were converts. Following the establishment of a communist regime in the north, however, most Christians had to flee to South Korea or face persecution.

New Religions

Ch'ondogyo, generally regarded as the first of Korea's "new religions," is another important religious tradition. It is a synthesis of Confucian, Buddhist, shamanistic, Daoist, and Catholic influences. Ch'ondogyo grew out of the Tonghak Movement (also called Eastern Learning Movement) established by Ch'oe Cheu , a man of yangban background who claimed to have experienced a mystic encounter with God, who told him to preach to all the world. Ch'oe was executed by the government as a heretic in 1863, but not before he had acquired a number of followers and had committed his ideas to writing. Tonghak spread among the poor people of Korea's villages, especially in the Cholla region, and was the cause of a revolt against the royal government in 1894. While some members of the Tonghak Movement-- renamed Ch'ondogyo (Teachings of the Heavenly Way)--supported the Japanese annexation in 1910, others opposed it. This group played a major role, along with Christians and some Confucians, in the Korean nationalist movement. In the 1920s, Ch'ondogyo sponsored Kaebyok (Creation), one of Korea's major intellectual journals during the colonial period.

Ch'ondogyo's basic beliefs include the essential equality of all human beings. Each person must be treated with respect because all persons "contain divinity;" there is "God in man." Moreover, men and women must sincerely cultivate themselves in order to bring forth and express this divinity in their lives. Self-perfection, not ritual and ceremony, is the way to salvation. Although Ch'oe and his followers did not attempt to overthrow the social order and establish a radical egalitarianism, the revolutionary potential of Ch'ondogyo is evident in these basic ideas, which appealed especially to poor people who were told that they, along with scholars and high officials, could achieve salvation through effort. There is reason to believe that Ch'ondogyo had an important role in the development of democratic and anti-authoritarian thought in Korea. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ch'ondogyo's antecedent, the Tonghak Movement, received renewed interest among many Korean intellectuals.

Apart from Ch'ondogyo, major new religions included Taejonggyo, which has as its central creed the worship of Tangun, legendary founder of the Korean nation. Chungsanggyo, founded in the early twentieth century, emphasizes magical practices and the creation of a paradise on earth. It is divided into a great number of competing branches. Wonbulgyo, or Won Buddhism, attempts to combine traditional Buddhist doctrine with a modern concern for social reform and revitalization. There are also a number of small sects which have sprung up around Mount Kyeryong in South Ch'ungch'ong Province, the supposed future site of the founding of a new dynasty originally prophesied in the eighteenth century.

Several new religions derive their inspiration from Christianity. The Chondogwan, or Evangelical Church, was founded by Pak T'ae-son. Pak originally was a Presbyterian, but was expelled from the church for heresy in the 1950s after claiming for himself unique spiritual power. By 1972 his followers numbered as many as 700,000 people, and he built several "Christian towns," established a large church network, and managed several industrial enterprises.

Because of its overseas evangelism, the Hold Spirit Association for the Unification of the World Christianity, or Unification Church (T'ongilgyo), founded in 1954 by Reverend Sun Myong Moon (Mun Son-myong), also a former Christian, is the most famous Korean new religion. During its period of rigorous expansion during the 1970s, the Unification Church had several hundred thousand members in South Korea and Japan and a substantial (although generally overestimated) number of members in North America and Western Europe. Moon claimed that he was the "messiah" designated by God to unify all the peoples of the world into one "family," governed theocratically by himself. Like Pak's Evangelical Church, the Unification Church has been highly authoritarian, demanding absolute obedience from church members. Moon, for example, has arranged marriages for his younger followers; United States television audiences were treated some years ago to a mass ceremony at which several hundred young "Moonies" were married. Also like Pak, Moon has coupled the church's fortunes to economic expansion. Factories in South Korea and abroad manufacture arms and process ginseng and seafood, artistic bric-a-brac, and other items. Moon's labor force has worked long hours and been paid minimal wages in order to channel profits into church coffers. Virulently anticommunist, Moon has sought to influence public opinion at home and abroad by establishing generally unprofitable newspapers such as the Segye Ilbo in Seoul, the Sekai Nippo in Tokyo, and the Washington Times in the United States capital, and by inviting academics to lavish international conferences, often held in South Korea. At home, the Unification Church was viewed with suspicion by the authorities because of its scandals and Moon's evident desire to create a "state within a state." His influence, however, had declined by the late 1980s.

Religion in Contemporary South Korea

According to government statistics, 42.6 percent or more than 17 million of South Korea's 1985 population professed adherence to an organized religious community. There were at least 8 million Buddhists (about 20 percent of the total population), about 6.5 million Protestants (16 percent of the population), some 1.9 million Roman Catholics (5 percent), nearly 500,000 people who belonged to Confucian groups (1 percent), and more than 300,000 others (0.7 percent). Significantly, large metropolitan areas had the highest proportions of people belonging to formal religious groups: 49.9 percent in Seoul, 46.1 percent for Pusan, and 45.8 percent for Taegu. The figures for Christians revealed that South Korea had the highest percentage of Christians of any country in East Asia or Southeast Asia, with the exception of the Philippines.

Except for the Christian groups, who maintain a fairly clearcut distinction between believers and nonbelievers, there is some ambiguity in these statistics. As mentioned above, there is no exact or exclusive criterion by which Buddhists or Confucianists can be identified. Many people outside of formal groups have been deeply influenced by these traditions. Moreover, there is nothing contradictory in one person's visiting and praying at Buddhist temples, participating in Confucian ancestor rites, and even consulting a shaman and sponsoring a kut. Furthermore, the statistics may underrepresent the numbers of people belonging to new religions. Some sources have given the number of adherents of Ch'ondogyo as over 1 million.

Given the great diversity of religious expression, the role of religion in South Korea's social development has been a complex one. Some traditions, especially Buddhism, are identified primarily with the past. Buddhist sites such as the Pulguksa Temple and the Sokkuram Grotto in Kyongju and the Haeinsa Temple near Taegu are regarded by most South Koreans as important cultural properties rather than as places of worship. Confucianism remains important as a social ethic; its influence is evident in the immense importance Koreans ascribe to education. Christianity is identified with modernization and social reform. Many Christians in contemporary South Korea, such as veteran political opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, a Catholic, have been outspoken advocates of human rights and critics of the government. Christian-sponsored organizations such as the Urban Industrial Mission promote labor organizations and the union movement. New religions draw on both traditional beliefs and on Christianity, achieving a baffling variety and diversity of views. It has been estimated that there were as many as 300 new religions in South Korea in the late 1980s, though many were small and transient phenomena.

South Korea


South Korea

Health conditions have improved dramatically since the end of the Korean War. Between 1955 and 1960, life expectancy was estimated at 51.1 years for men and 54.2 years for women. In 1990 life expectancy was 66 years for men and 73 years for women. The death rate declined significantly, from 13.8 deaths per 1,000 in 1955-60 to 6 deaths per 1,000 in 1989--one of the lowest rates among East Asian and Southeast Asian countries.

Nevertheless, serious health problems remained in 1990. South Korea's infant mortality rate was significantly higher than the rates of other Asian countries and territories such as Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and peninsular Malaysia. Although practically all the inhabitants of Seoul and other large cities had access to running water and sewage disposal in the late 1980s, environmental pollution and poor sanitation still posed serious threats to public health in both rural and urban areas.

Health Conditions

The main causes of death traditionally have been respiratory diseases--tuberculosis, bronchitis, and pneumonia--followed by gastrointestinal illnesses. However, the incidence and fatality of both types of illness declined during the 1970s and 1980s. Diseases typical of developed, industrialized countries--cancer, heart, liver, and kidney ailments, diabetes, and strokes--were rapidly becoming the primary causes of death. The incidence of parasitism, once a major health problem in farming communities because of the widespread use of night soil as fertilizer, was reported in the late 1980s to be only 4 percent of what it had been in 1970. Encephalitis, a viral disease that can be transmitted to humans by mosquitoes, caused ninety-four deaths in 1982. To reduce fatalities, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs planned to vaccinate 17.2 million persons against the disease by 1988.

The tensions and social dislocations caused by rapid urbanization apparently increased the incidence of mental illness. In 1985 the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs began a large-scale program to expand mental health treatment facilities by opening mental institutions and requiring that new hospitals have wards set aside for psychiatric treatment. The ministry estimated the number of persons suffering from mental ailments at around 400,000.

South Korea has not been entirely immune from the health and social problems generally associated with the West, such as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and addictive drugs. A handful of AIDS cases was reported during the late 1980s. Seoul responded by increasing the budget for education programs and instituting mandatory AIDS testing of prostitutes and employees of entertainment establishments. An AIDS Prevention Law was promulgated in November 1987. In late 1989, the government drafted a law requiring AIDS testing of foreign athletes and entertainers intending to reside in South Korea without their spouses for more than three months. Previously, the majority of those infected with AIDS had been prostitutes working near United States military bases, oceangoing seamen, and South Koreans working abroad. In the late 1980s, however, homosexuals began to account for an increasing number of those infected with the AIDS virus. The traditional Korean attitude toward homosexuality, which was to deny its existence, made it extremely difficult to treat this part of the population. The 200-percent annual increase in the number of AIDS-infected persons (from one reported case in 1985 to twenty-two cases in 1988) worried health officials.

While the use of heroin and other opiates was rare in South Korea and the use of cocaine limited, the use of crystalline methamphetamine, or "ice," known in South Korea as hiroppon, had become a serious problem by the late 1980s. Estimates of the number of South Korean abusers of this illegal drug (known in the United States as speed) ranged from 100,000 to 300,000 people in the late 1980s. Because use of the drug was believed to involve just low-status members of society, such as prostitutes and gangsters, the problem of hiroppon abuse had long been ignored in South Korea. The problem received greater attention from police and other government agencies during the late 1980s as the drug increased in popularity among professionals, students, office workers, housewives, entertainers, farmers, and laborers. Some observers suggested the drug's popularity was caused in part by a high-pressure work environment, in which people used hiroppon to cope with long working hours. It also has been suggested that the tighter border controls imposed by Seoul have resulted in diverting the product to the domestic market and contributing to greater domestic consumption.

An estimated 2,000 to 4,000 kilograms of methamphetamine were produced within South Korea annually, much of this total destined for shipment to Taiwan, Japan, and the United States by South Korean and Japanese yakuza, or gangsters. Since the majority of users injected the drug intravenously (although smoking and snorting it were becoming popular), South Korean health officials were concerned that the drug could contribute to the spread of AIDS. In 1989 Seoul established a new antinarcotics division attached to the prosecutor general's office and increased almost fourfold the number of drug agents.

Health Care and Social Welfare

Source: Based on information from Edward S. Mason et al., The Economic and Social Modernization of the Republic of Korea, Cambridge, 1980, 402, 404; and The Statesman's Yearbook, 1988-89, New York, 1988, 775.

The traditional practice of medicine in Korea was influenced primarily, though not exclusively, by China. Over the centuries, Koreans had used acupuncture and herbal remedies to treat a wide variety of illnesses. Large compilations of herbal and other prescriptions were published during the Choson Dynasty: the 85- volume Hyangyak chipsongbang (Great Collection of Korean Prescriptions) published in 1433 and the 365-volume Uibang yuch'wi (Great Collection of Medicines and Prescriptions) published in 1445. Shops selling traditional medicines, including ginseng, a root plant believed to have strong medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities, still were common in the 1980s. Because of the expense of modern medical care, people still had to rely largely on such remedies to treat serious illnesses until the 1980s--particularly in rural areas.

The number of physicians, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, and other health personnel and the number of hospitals and clinics have increased dramatically since the Korean War. In 1974 the population per physician was 2,207; by 1983 this number had declined to 1,509. During the same period, the number of general hospitals grew from 36 to 156 and the number of hospital beds tripled from 19,062 to 59,099. Most facilities, however, tended to be concentrated in urban areas, particularly in Seoul and Pusan. Rural areas had limited medical facilities, because in the past there was little incentive for physicians to work in areas outside the cities, where the major of the people could not pay for treatment. Several private rural hospitals had been established with government encouragement but had gone bankrupt in the late 1980s. The extension of medical insurance programs to the rural populace, however, was expected to alleviate this problem to some extent during the 1990s.

The South Korean government committed itself to making medical security (medical insurance and medical aid) available to virtually the entire population by 1991. There was no unified national health insurance system, but the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs coordinated its efforts with those of employers and private insurance firms to achieve this goal. Two programs were established in 1977: the Free and Subsidized Medical Aid Program for people whose income was below a certain level, and a medical insurance program that provided coverage for individuals and their immediate families working in enterprises of 500 people or more. Expenses were shared equally by employers and workers. In 1979 coverage was expanded to enterprises comprising 300 or more people, as well as to civil servants and teachers in private schools. In 1981 coverage was extended to enterprises employing 100 or more people and in 1984 to firms with as few as 16 employees. In that year, 16.7 million persons, or 41.3 percent of the population, had medical insurance. By 1988 the government had expanded medical insurance coverage in rural areas to almost 7.5 million people. As of the end of 1988, approximately 33.1 million people, or almost 79 percent of the population, received medical insurance benefits. At that time, the number of those not receiving medical insurance benefits totaled almost 9 million people, mostly independent small business owners in urban areas. In July 1989, however, Seoul extended medical insurance to cover these self-employed urbanites, so that the medical insurance system extended to almost all South Koreans. Differences in insurance premiums among small business owners, government officials and teachers, people in farming and fishing areas, and those employed by business firms remained a divisive and unresolved issue.

Medical insurance programs for farming and fishing communities, where the majority of people were self-employed or worked for very small enterprises, also were initiated by the government. In 1981 three rural communities were selected as experimental sites for implementation of a comprehensive medical insurance program. Three more areas, including Mokp'o in South Cholla Province, were added in 1982. Industrial injury compensation schemes were begun in the early 1960s and by 1982 covered 3.5 million workers in most major industries.

During the 1980s, government pension or social security insurance programs covered designated groups, such as civil servants, military personnel, and teachers. Private employers had their own schemes to which they and workers both contributed. Government planners envisioned a public and private system of pensions covering the entire population by the early 1990s. In the wake of rapid economic growth, large sums have been allocated for social development programs in the national budget. In FY (fiscal year) 1990, total spending in this area increased 40 percent over the previous year. Observers noted, however, that serious deficiencies existed in programs to assist the handicapped, single-parent families, and the unemployed.

South Korea

CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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