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Reading :: The Republic of Korea

Posted by: on Feb 23, 2013 | No Comments
The Republic of Korea: Economic Transformation and Social Change
By David I. Steinberg


Writing in 1989, David Steinberg describes the history and economic transformation of the Korean peninsula, focusing on the Republic of Korea (also known as South Korea). Bear in mind that the book is written before the pivotal year of 1997, when an economic crisis set in motion far-reaching changes in how the Republic governs itself and manages its economy.

It's no easy task to summarize the history of a culture that spans 4000BC to the present day, but Steinberg does a credible job. After some introductory work, he covers early history (Chapter 3), traditional Korea from 1392-1904 (Chapter 4), the Japanese colonial period of 1904-1945 (Chapter 5), and the six Korean republics from 1945-1989 (Chapter 6). The remainder of the book describes Korean history and culture (Chapter 7), its politics and administration (Chapter 8), the role of the military (Chapter 9), its economic development from 1953-1986 (Chapter 10), its external relations (Chapter 11), and its future (Chapter 12).

Steinberg obviously has great affection for Korea—which I appreciated—but he doesn't minimize its difficulties. Nevertheless, the book ends on a positive note, one that foresaw some of the extraordinarily positive developments that the ROK has achieved since 1989.

Let's pick out some highlights. Korean culture seems to have taken "the clan as the basic element of social organization" since the late Neolithic (p.20). Although the Korean peoples appear to have descended from Siberians (p.19), Korea was strongly influenced and often dominated by China from 194 BC onward (p.21). The Han Dynasty conquered Korea in 108 BC, establishing the Lolang (or Nangnang) period, which "lasted several hundred years" (p.21). And "During this period, there developed a set of tribally organized states or groupings that eventually fused into what has become Korea. These were Puyo in the north and Mahan, Chinhan, and Pyonhan in the south" (p.21). Korea developed three city-states: Koguryo (founded 37 BC), Paekche (founded 18 BC), and Silla (founded 57 BC). Once "Koguryo ousted the Chinese in 313" (p.21), these city-states developed into the "three kingdoms," eventually uniting under Silla (p.22).

Korea, located near China and Siberia on one side and Japan on the other, acted as "a transmission belt, receiving and exporting culture and technology in the region" (p.22). Japan received much of its early culture, including Buddhism and art, through Paechke (p.22).

Steinberg says:
All three kingdoms showed a strong tendency toward patrilinial and hierarchical power. All were centralized, aristocratic states, with a very strong tradition, perhaps best known in Silla but apparently common in the area, of rank based on hereditary principles. In Silla, this was called "bone rank," and it influenced all forms of social and political behavior. The Silla aristocracy was organized into gradations of seventeen ranks, with only the top rankings allowed to have effective power. (p.25)
Indeed, as Steinberg later explains in the chapter on politics and administration, "Hierarchy is integral to the Confucian tradition and exceptionally pervasive. ... This sense of hierarchy is reflected in the Korean language itself, which like Japanese (but unlike Chinese) requires a complex system of grammatic and lexographic honorifics that expressly designate the relative status of each person referred to or involved in a conversation" (p.93). But hierarchy goes beyond the Confucian tradition:
The pre-Confucian social order was, in fact, more hierarchical than the Confucian ideal. Early Korean states were organized along rigid class differentiations based on "bone rank," or a hereditary system that eventually evolved into the yangban system. In this class of both civilian and military gentry, the civilians dominated. The yangban—the backbone of the political, governmental, moral, and social order—originally claimed status on the basis of aristocratic lineage, and then on their scholastic, and thus bureaucratic, standing. (p.93)
In fact, only the yangban could take the examinations that would allow them entry into the bureaucracy, resulting in a self-perpetuating upper class.

Steinberg saw this strong bureaucratic tradition as influencing Korea up to his day. In fact, he says, "The existence of an autonomous private sector in Korea, whether it be in education or in business, is arguable; nongovernmental or quasi-governmental might be a more accurate description of this sector. Public-private collaboration, with government in the lead, is the most usual form of action" (p.96). Furthermore, "power is generally considered finite," making power a zero-sum game: "to share power is to diminish one's power and one's position; to delegate it is to lose it" (p.98).

Understanding that tendency helps us to understand the chaebol, the clan-based conglomerates (e.g.,  Samsung, LG, Hyundai, SK) that developed during the Park regime of 1961-1979. "Because the chaebol were in debt to government-sponsored or approved institutions for more than four times the value of their equity assets (much higher than the debt of average Korean concerns and far higher than that of most compatible firms in other countries), state direction and intervention, culturally reinforced by traditional Korean and Confucian concepts of state power, were pronounced" (p.135).

Steinberg discusses a great deal more, including the sometimes rocky internal relations of the ROK and the similarly strained relations with the US and Japan. But let's leave the book here. It's a solid, sympathetic book that crams an improbable amount of information into its 218 pages. If you're interested in the history and culture of the ROK—up to 1989—this is a good place to start.