There are emerging social challenges facing South Korea that, if not handled skillfully, could lead to larger societal difficulties in the coming years. At the fore is the increasing discontent surrounding the income gap between the rich and the poor. Class conflict was the primary social concern for Koreans according to a survey conducted last year, a view buttressed by increasing unemployment. August saw the highest rate of unemployment since 2010, with more jobs lost than created. For the young, there is an increasingly competitive marketplace and rising cost of living that leaves them fewer options for socioeconomic mobility than their parents enjoyed.
Many young Koreans call not only for economic reform but also for drastic social change in and outside the workplace. Tensions surrounding gender inequality -- from harassment to the gender wage gap -- exploded after a public prosecutor came forward in January with public allegations of sexual abuse against a Ministry of Justice official. Korea’s own #MeToo movement followed, with more and more women speaking out against the troubling conditions they face in public and private spaces. The discontent surrounding the status of women continues to gain momentum.
Korea’s patchwork of growing societal problems -- immigration, air quality, low birthrates --call for a more comprehensive conflict study emphasis in universities here to solve them. According to the Institute for Health and Social Affairs, Korea ranks only 27th among 34 OECD countries in a social conflict management index. Peace and conflict studies is a social science field that could improve this ranking by teaching students to move beyond negative peace, which is the simple absence of violence, to engage in positive peacebuilding. Students would be able to identify problems from economic exploitation to sexism. They would be able to calculate the cost of social conflict. They would be in a better position to brainstorm solutions and carry them out to the advantage of the nation.
As an example, the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University Korea in Incheon offers a degree focusing on solving the types of social issues Korea faces. The curriculum teaches positive communication, cultural sensitivity, and resolving conflicts in ways that are helpful for all parties. Their studies are put into action through events such as SCAR’s recent project on sustainable development for Korea unification. It included a problem solving workshop, an open five-week academy, and culminated in a fruitful symposium gathering experts in the field of conflict analysis and peacebuilding to discuss the deep and diverse issues and opportunities of Korean Unification.
A mastery of conflict resolution helps those who enter the Korean civil service and the private sector to create a more harmonious nation. Civil servants with conflict resolution expertise are able to streamline public service processes and contribute to inter-agency cooperation within the government. Private companies run more efficiently with conflict resolution structures in place as well, particularly important in a country with large and bureaucratic corporations, complex hierarchical structures, and ardent labor unions. Unsolved disputes in both arenas are costly, thus conflict resolution specialists hold immense value to their employers.
If Korea can be a leader in conflict resolution, this offers the country an edge over competitors like China in global relations. It would allow Korea to strengthen its role as a trusted mediator for international disputes, hence benefitting from expansive alliances. Such alliances hold economic and political value for the country as it comes into its own domestically and globally. Conflict resolution experts, such as graduates of comprehensive university programs, are key to meeting these emerging needs.
Laine Munir is a research fellow, at the Peace and Conflict Studies Center Asia’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University Korea. -- Ed.