The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Superficial Korea, super-network Korea

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Oct. 10, 2017 - 17:36

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Recently I came across an intriguing book titled “Superficial Korea” by Shin Gi-wook, a professor of sociology at Stanford. The book diagnosed and illustrated various strange phenomena and social maladies in Korean society with reference to American society and global standards.

In his illuminating book, Shin perceives that Korean society enjoys “a feast of its own” that is not inviting to outsiders. He argues that in Korean society you can survive only through the “super network” formed by your alma mater, hometown and blood kinship. The bonding of the super network is so strong that if you do not belong to one of them, you are doomed to be a social pariah.

Likewise, you will be doomed to be a social outcast if you do not drink and therefore do not join the frequent evening hoesik or social gatherings, which are nothing more than drinking soirees. No matter how much you hate it, you are not supposed to be absent from it. Korea is a group-oriented society and you will be doomed if you are a loner or a rogue. You should be “one of us.” Most foreigners find this strange custom of Korea very annoying, as it does not allow individuality or personal freedom.

As an American academic, Shin finds it weird that in Korea thousands of professors swarm presidential campaign camps to obtain a position in the government. A professor is primarily a scholar and teacher, not a politician. If you had wanted to become a government official, you should have become a politician, not a professor, in the first place. Strangely, however, quite a few Korean professors including scientists want to land a government position and therefore join presidential camps.

Behind this weird phenomenon lies a uniquely Korean tradition: scholars ruled the nation for 500 years during the Joseon era -- and the tradition persists. Yet it is not quite normal and may end up harming the nation because those professors neglect their academic research and teaching obligations. Meanwhile, the newly elected president has to force able high-ranking government officials to resign so he can give positions to the “polifessors” who were in his camp.

Shin also points out that Korean education fails to encourage creativity. Indeed, Korean education produces numerous standardized, mediocre thinkers that seriously lack originality and imagination. As a result, many young Koreans are merely “fast followers,” not inventors or creators. “Superficial Korea” encourages the reader to “think outside the box” and become a “first mover” and a “trend setter,” not a mere imitator or a follower

Koreans may be fast followers, but they are certainly not fast learners. It seems that we have not learned from the past and therefore foolishly repeat the same follies again and again. In other countries, the past is simply a mirror reflecting the present and the future. Therefore, they reflect upon and learn from the past. In Korea, however, the past is something you should renounce, eradicate and purge. It is the original sin that must be repudiated and is a fountain of grudges and spitefulness. That is why every new regime in Korea has sought to investigate and deny the previous regime. If you made a mistake in the past, all you have to do is not repeat the same mistake in the future. You do not need to investigate and punish the past as if it was evil itself.
According to “Superficial Korea,” there are numerous surveillance cameras and recording devices in Korea. Those ubiquitous devices seriously invade our privacy. CCTV cameras are constantly filming us and people are illegally recording our conversations, and yet we do not seem to realize the danger of such phenomenon. For example, our smartphones have a phone-recording feature whereas the iPhone does not. Recording the other party’s conversation without authorization is not only an invasion of privacy but also a crime in some countries. In Korea, however, secret recordings and illegal videotaping are rampant.

As Shin points out, Koreans are interested in specifications rather than in qualification. As a result, young Koreans are busily building up and upgrading their “specifications,” such as prestigious alma mater, excellent GPAs, high TOEIC or TOEFL scores, overseas language training and so forth. Meanwhile, nobody seems to care about a person’s competence, creativity, or personality.

“Superficial Korea” also laments the lack of diversity and generosity in Korean society. Indeed, preoccupied with the groundless theory of homogeneity, Koreans tend to be intolerant of different cultures and peoples. Consequently, inbreeding is rampant and we even want foreign immigrants to assimilate into our culture and society. This is far from the ideal of multiculturalism that acknowledges minority cultures as an integral part of the dominant culture.

Surely, all these things have made Korea superficial and shallow. To make matters worse, we imported only superficial aspects of Western cultural movements, neglecting their genuine essence. We urgently need to turn Korea into a substantial, profound and multidimensional society so that professor Shin will be able to write another book entitled “Substantial Korea” or “Diverse Korea.”

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at -- Ed.