From the land of the morning silence

(Published in GralsWelt 9/1998)

KoreaThe "Land of the Morning Calm" is often compared to Germany by its inhabitants. Because both countries were or are still divided as a result of the Second World War.

This division of the country is all the more depressing for Koreans because they can say that - at least in the last millennium - wars never started from Korean soil, but that the small country, squeezed between overpowering neighbors, was only forced again and again to defend itself against attacks from outside.

The superior man loves the intrinsic value,
The commoner loves the earthly,
The superior man loves the law.
The commoner seeks favor.

When we speak of Korea here, we are referring primarily to the South Korea of the present day, which is officially called the Republic of Korea. Of the communist north of the country, we know little more than that it fell into the clutches of a brutal dictatorship whose "stone-age communism" is ruining the country's economy, oppressing its people and even currently consigning more than 20 million pitiful inhabitants to famine. As we know today, five decades of socialist dictatorship can leave worse damage in a country's economy as well as in the psyche of its people than the Second World War.

After the Korean War (1950-1953), the south of Korea, somewhat smaller in area but with a population of 45 million, well over twice the size of the north, was a largely devastated country with no raw materials of its own, very labor-intensive agriculture and little industry; it was ranked among the poorest countries in the world.

Today, small, overpopulated South Korea is the tenth-largest industrialized country in the world; it is expanding on the world markets, and even in faraway Germany, Korean televisions and video equipment are just as much a matter of course in the supermarket as Korean cars are on the roads. Reason enough to take a closer look at this Asian "economic miracle country.

Korean culture was and still is shaped by Chinese influences, and even today Koreans like to point out that the high culture of the time came from China to Korea and from there to Japan.

The thinking of many Koreans - especially the older generation - is still shaped by Confucian values.
Thus, age still plays a major role in social life, and it is difficult to imagine a young couple marrying against their parents' wishes.

Widespread religions in the Western sense are Christianity and Buddhism.
About 30 percent of Koreans describe themselves as Christians. Most of them are of various Protestant churches, only about three percent are Catholics.
Buddhism convinces with its ancient cultural heritage, for example its charming temples, and mostly appears inconspicuous in the silence. Its influence - like that of Confucianism - goes deeper than a tourist realizes in the hustle and bustle of the strongly American-influenced everyday life.

Remnants of very old shamanic customs have also been preserved, of which a visitor usually does not notice: fortune telling, expelling spirits, oracles are just as much a part of folk culture as traditional medicine. (See. "Shaman women in Korea"Under" Book Reviews ").
If a family has bad luck, people still consult a geomancer today, who checks whether the grave of an ancestor is incorrectly positioned. If necessary, the ancestor must be reburied to end the streak of bad luck.

When looking at Korean history, we find another parallel to Germany: we Germans like to refer to the Middle Ages with its heyday of European culture on German soil; Koreans usually begin their historical reflections with the "Three Kingdoms" (Schilla, Paekche, Koguryo), from which the first united Korean kingdom arose in the 8th century.

From the 4th century, Buddhism, which came from China, gained influence until it became the state religion. First great works of art - including still preserved or reconstructed picture-perfect temples, pagodas, statues - were created.

However, the ideas of Confucius also found their way in, and in the 8th century a state examination based on the Chinese model was introduced in Korea.

One speaks of the "First Golden Age" of Korean culture in the Shilla Kingdom, whose former capital Kyongju with its historical sites is a much-visited tourist attraction. However, in 935 the Shilla Empire perished from its own weakness. It was superseded by the "Koryo" empire, which created a second flowering of Korean culture in an atmosphere of constant internal and external threat. This is how, for example, the oldest font printed with movable metal letters was created - that was in the 12th century, i.e. three centuries before Gutenberg!

In the "Second Golden Age" of the Koryo Empire (918-1392), Confucians and Buddhists did not get along; there were many disputes. The Mongols, who conquered large parts of Korea in the 13th century, plundered the country and made it subject to tribute, finished off the quarreling Koryo kingdom.

As Mongol power weakened in the 14th century, Korea was able to free itself from Mongol suzerainty, better coordinate its defense against well-organized Japanese pirates, and implement much-needed land reform. Religious disputes were ended by recognition of Confucianism as the state ethic.

This "Joseon" period (1392-1897), which lasted until the emergence of the Empire (1897-1910), saw the "Third Golden Age" with cultural achievements that the small country is still proud of today:
- The script developed by order of King Sejong (reigned 1418 - 1450): A letter script written and read only in Korea. It is said to be very quick to learn and is ideally suited for the Korean language.
- The year 1442 saw the invention of the rain gauge, which was only re-invented in Europe 2 centuries later.
- A musical notation for Korean and Chinese music.
- Last but not least, Korea's pride, the famous "Turtle Ships" were born. These were the first ironclad and cannon ships that saved Korea more than 200 years before "Monitor" and "Merrimac". (Note: "Monitor" (Northern States) and "Merrimac" (Southern States) were the names of the two ironclads that fought the first battle between two armored gunboats in the American Civil War in 1862, which ended in a draw).

We must go into this in more detail: In 1592 Korea refused to invade China on the side of Japan; for this she was attacked by the troops of the Shoguns Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-4598) overrun and plundered. Artisans in particular were taken to Japan from Korea, which had been largely destroyed. Rescue was brought by the "Turtle Ships" of the Admirals Yi Sunshinwhich defeated the Japanese fleets and cut off supplies to the land forces. Thus, Korea, already largely occupied by the Japanese, was destroyed by the "Korean Nelson" - who in 1598, like the widely known English Admiral Lord Nelson (1758 - 1805) fell in a decisive battle - saved.

The devastated country had little time to come to rest. As early as 1636, it was drawn into the fighting between the Ming and Manchus in China; it chose the side of the losers (the Ming) and had to submit to the Manchus as a vassal state.

As the Chinese Manchu Empire fell in the 18th century, Korea gradually regained its independence; the population increased and the economic situation improved.

But now the royal house wanted nothing more to do with foreign countries from which so much disaster had come. Trade with China and Japan was allowed to develop only slowly; Korea became one of the most difficult places for Europeans to reach and had to be mocked as the "Hermit Kingdom." Contacts with the West remained correspondingly limited. Although a Dutch ship stranded in Korea in 1627 and its captain was appointed advisor to the royal court, further contacts with the West were limited to impressions that Korean legations accredited to the Chinese imperial court were able to gain from the Europeans who appeared there.

When Western influences could no longer be kept completely away from Korea, the royal house reacted with panic. In the early 19th century, several hundred Catholics who had been converted by a priest coming from China were fusilized. In China as in Korea, the rulers agreed that Western teachings undermined the Confucian faith and endangered the social order.

In addition, Europeans and Americans were seen as the embodiment of a subhumanity far inferior to Asian culture. In Korea, hostility to anything foreign went so far that an American ship that ran aground in 1866 was burned and the crew executed.

The desperate fear of foreign countries was even directed against well-meaning compatriots: The Geographer Kim Chong-Ho labored for two decades on his own initiative to produce a usable map of Korea. When, after many arduous treks through all parts of the country, he finally had 22 printing stamps cut in wood and the map could be printed, he dedicated one of the first copies to the government; surely expecting to find recognition for his unique achievement and support for the printing. But the regent had him executed (and this in the 2nd half of the 19th century!) for "betraying state secrets to foreigners" and had the printing blocks burned.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Russians and the Japanese pressed Korea, which was still living in feudal, Confucian structures. The latter still tried to keep itself "pure" from foreign influences, from European science and technology.

Eventually, after wars against China and Russia, Japan prevailed and made Korea first a protectorate and then its colony in 1910.

The period of violent suppression of everything Korean and the attempt to introduce Japanese language and culture by force began. This went so far that in 1936 the whole world was reminded of the Olympic victory of the "Japanese"... Kitei-Son in marathon running, who is called Kee Chung Son and is Korean. In 1988 he was the tail runner of the relay team that brought the Olympic flame to Seoul.

Certainly, Japan did a lot for industrialization and infrastructure development in Korea; but not for the sake of the Koreans, but as a base for Japan's great power aspirations.

To this day, Koreans are marked by a trauma from this period: On the one hand, they admire the economic achievements of their unloved neighbor as exemplary; on the other hand, the humiliations of the occupation period still run very, very deep, and the slightest occasion is enough to cause emotions to boil over.

The end of the Second World War, the total defeat of Japan, did not bring full liberation for Korea; the country was divided. A division that must be felt all the more bitterly because Korea - unlike Germany - bears no war guilt whatsoever and - as so often in its history - feels itself to be the victim of foreign interests.

But that was not enough: In the early morning of June 25, 1950, well-equipped North Korean troops fell upon the almost defenseless South to force the reunification of the two Koreas under communist rule. One of the cruelest wars of this century began. American prisoners were brutally massacred by North Koreans and the civilian population fell victim to the ordered "extermination of the class enemy". Those who could not flee in time were murdered unless they managed to hide or escape into the woods as partisans.

That South Korea was saved owes much to a UN action that came about when the Soviet envoy left the Security Council over a National-China dispute and could not veto it.

We need not pursue the terrible history of the Korean War any further; the aim here is to arouse understanding for the fears that can still be felt in Korea today of a hostile neighbor who only a generation ago proved to be an abomination.

After the Korean War, the Korean economic miracle was able to begin in the South, first slowly, then at a breathtaking pace, impressing everyone who visits the country and is aware of its history. In several, longer stays as a technical advisor, I was able to experience this surprisingly fast economic growth at first hand.

Today, in the south of Korea, we meet a talented and hardworking people who love their homeland very much and are proud of their traditions. The preservation of their culture, which is described as "unique," is important to the Koreans. This endeavor not infrequently takes on traits that would be dismissed as "racist" in our country. For example, in Korea (as in Japan) there is hardly any understanding for a marriage with a foreigner, because children from such a union are easily lost to one's own culture.

Here it proves how much language and writing connect.
Korea, like Japan, has its own language and its own special script that is not used anywhere else. This creates feelings of togetherness that a European or American cannot comprehend. Even in huge China, despite different languages, the common word script has a unifying effect.
Thus, the East Asian languages and scripts, which are difficult for foreigners to learn, automatically create segregated groups that feel their identity is necessary and tend to compartmentalize against foreigners.

This "racism" - from a European point of view - even turned out to be an advantage for the Japanese economy: When the economic boom of the 1970s and 1980s led to a shortage of labor in Japan, industry did not want to and could not resort to guest workers. Thus, it was forced to take rationalization measures at an early stage, which led it - at least temporarily - to the top of the world in terms of rationalization techniques and the use of industrial robots: In 1996, there were 650,000 industrial robots worldwide, of which 60 % were installed in Japan.

In the meantime, rising wages in Korea as well (today at about the level of Portugal or Ireland, by no means the status of a developing country) are forcing rationalization, and wage-intensive products have long been outsourced to low-wage countries. High wage costs are by no means only noticeable in Germany!

SOUTH AND NORTH KOREA COMPARED (figures circa 1995):
Population (millions): South Korea 45/ North Korea 20.
Gross social product in billions US-$: South 484/ North 9.6.
Gross social product per capita in US-$: South: 10,700 / North: 481.
Economic growth in %: South 7.1/ North - 30
Military spending as % of gross social product: South 3.1/ North 26

Some of the figures on North Korea are not very reliable estimates!
In North Korea, gross social product has been steadily declining for six years; in 1995, only 30 % of factories were in operation.
South Korea's foreign trade was 126 times that of North Korea in 1995, and the figures for North Korea have probably deteriorated since then.
However, North Korea's strict communist dictatorship possesses biological and chemical weapons as well as the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
North Korea's exports consist almost entirely of weapons, including MIG fighters and missiles.

The drastic devaluation of the won in early 1998 has so far brought no noticeable relief, as a financial crisis is paralyzing the economy. The cause is corruption and entanglement between the government, banks and the large corporations (called cheabols), which invested recklessly.

The population is deeply disappointed to angry about the setback, which has already led to mass layoffs. On the other hand, the "Confucian virtues" proved themselves in this crisis when the citizens of Korea donated 165 tons of gold in January 1998 to save their country from insolvency.

Despite all the disappointment at the failure of those responsible, the Koreans remain a hard-working and energetic people who will try to absorb the setbacks in an export offensive. It can overcome the current uncertainty, look to the future again with courage, and will continue to believe in the present and future significance of its unique culture.

The biggest unresolved problem is the reunification of the two Koreas, which is feared in the South: The experience with German unification is highly sobering.

North Korea is in a far worse state than the GDR ever was; the South is not as efficient as the West German economy. If we in Germany already have problems with the integration of 17 million citizens from the new states (with a population of the old states of 65 million), how are 45 million South Koreans supposed to manage the construction of a larger country in terms of area with a population of more than 20 million?
Helpful advice is wanted!

But this is not yet the case. It is impossible to say if and when the two Koreas will be unified; presumably, much will depend on the Chinese leadership, which can hold North Korea but also let it fall.

Until then, South Korea will continue to work diligently, improve the economy, make progress in politics, and seek to mitigate the social and environmental distortions that are inevitable with such rapid construction.

We wish all the best to the Korean people who are friendly and helpful to foreigners today, whom I have come to appreciate in several longer stays as a technical consultant, and to their scenic, exotic country!