I’m incredibly excited to be on my way to Korea again, for the first time in many years, as a speaker presenting Mirror at Asia Buidl and ETH Seoul. I first went to Seoul when I was 18 years old, and lived there with my best friend’s family; this post is a recap of how I discovered some of the things that fascinate me about Korea.
When I was growing up, I had a Korean roommate in my boarding school in South Africa. We became best friends in high school, and I watched him and his two brothers learn English and become one of the top students in my year. Every day for five years, as we worked and played together, we learned from each other. Korean culture wasn’t an explicit theme in our friendship, but hearing the language very often, seeing the writing, and the occasional k-pop exposure left a deep impression on me.
When we graduated high, both of us were accepted to colleges in the United States – we had collaborated together to get through taking the tests and completing our college applications. Because our South African high school ended in December, and American universities started in September, my friend invited me to spend a few months with him in Seoul.
[note: Koreans work extremely hard to get into American universities in pursuit of the world’s best education; far less than one percent of the world’s people are South Korean, but in 2007 a full 10.7% of foreign students at American universities came from there. ]
In my admissions essay, I wrote about my fascination with Korea’s miraculous socio-economic achievements. From the 1960s to the 1970s, Korea dug itself out of extreme poverty following the Korean War (when a third of its population was homeless) through strategic state planning; GDP per capita rose from $120 to $1040. The state focused on empowering privileged families called chaebol to scale companies like Hyundai, Samsung, LG, and Lotte and urbanize Korea – raising the population of Seoul from 2.4 million in 1960 to almost half of the country’s population today, and employing hundreds of thousands of people globally.
Economic liberation followed in the 1980s, and the Asian economic crisis in 1997 bankrupted some chaebol **companies like Kia and became a turning point for cracking down on corruption between politicians and the chaebol. However, chaebol still exists today and they have dominance and a head start over others in Korea, which makes it difficult for startups to thrive. I’m extremely interested to see a new generation of entrepreneurs rise up, and have often considered angel investing in some startups there.
Around the time I visited, back in 2009, k-pop was getting into full swing. Boybands like BigBang, girls groups like Girls Generation, and solo artists like G-Dragon were larger than life. I learned the songs, I learned some Korean language (I have spent a few hundred hours learning Korean but can only say about 50 phrases!), and generally grew to love the culture and people. I’ve kept up with some of the k-wave, and during the pandemic, I got to watch two great k-dramas: Crash Landing on You, and My Mister.
During my time exploring Korea, there were many cultural elements I became extremely attracted to – like education, protest, caring (Jeong), work ethic, and the cherishing and expression of emotion and melancholy in the arts.
Korean governments prioritized education as the key to national development and have pursued educational egalitarianism – which can be seen in the increasing number of schools throughout the country. Korean society prizes literacy and the democratization of education has a long history.
In the 1400s, King Sejong the Great mandated the creation of Hangul, the Korean alphabet that, unlike Chinese characters (hanja), is phonetic and easy to learn. Almost any Korean, Chinese, or English word can be written and read surprisingly easily in Hangul. It’s so simple that takes just a few days for anyone to learn! Once you know Hangul, you can read and write any word – although you might not know what the word means yet. This enabled ordinary people in Korean society to become literate, and today the illiteracy rate in Korea is almost zero.
This was evident to me already, having seen my friend and his family of three brothers fight to learn English from scratch and become top-performing academics at my high school. His mother had moved with them to South Africa so that they could have an excellent education at an English-speaking school. But I had to be there and see some teenage students walking home from private tutoring every night at 11 pm to understand the pervasiveness of this commitment to education!
Korea’s open educational system provides them with knowledge of fundamental civics and political theory, history, and public administration. This arms the society with a political agency that is expressed in a vibrant tradition of protest. There is a beautiful Korean film called A Taxi Driver that centers on an uprising in 1980 that demonstrated Korea’s mainstream, progressive and modern politics against a more conservative state. Although Koreans have less to complain about today, I believe that this tradition is still as strong as ever.
I learned that one of Korea’s defining cultural qualities is Jeong, which loosely means a “feeling of fondness, caring, bonding, and attachment that develop within interpersonal relationships.” Jeong demands loyalty, sacrifice, and forgiveness between those who share it. It doesn’t necessarily require liking someone – there is an expression mium jeong (hateful jeong) to describe bitter interdependency. To me, this had a similarity to the South African term Ubuntu, which means “you are who you are through other people” – emphasizing interdependence within communities as a fundamental part of the human condition. Jeong is more pervasive in Korean culture and influences business and economics. On a darker note, it likely also justifies corruption in chaebol discussed earlier; the Korean word for favoritism Jeongshil is derived from Jeong.
To have Jeong, there must also be cultural boundaries that create the interdependent in-group. The Korean term for this is woori – the sense of “we”. The outsider is known as nam. In one context family is woori and a person living down the street is nam; in another context, the people of the country are woori and foreigners are nam. The strong feeling of pride in one’s in-group can also lead to shame when a citizen does something that’s embarrassing internationally. That’s why the scandals, like with crypto founder Do Kwan, are dealt with very harshly.
Korea is characterized by frightfully intense competition. Students fight to win a place in the best universities, jobs, and marriage partners. The pressure to compete begins in early childhood and never seems to diminish. As noted, Korea pulled itself out of economic poverty in the 1950s, which it did by drilling it into students’ heads that they were on a historic mission to revive the nation. Each generation has been eager to pass on their hard-won advantages and continue the continuous education and improvement. This manifests in an extreme focus on schooling – moving kids overseas, as with my friends, and paying for expensive private lessons to get ahead; the elite maintain their position through their ability to outspend on private tuition. About 70% of elementary students and 50% of middle and high school students receive some form of private tutoring. However much the value of education resonates with me, it’s also arguable that Koreans are overeducated relative to productivity, and that this competitiveness has had a negative impact on their emotional well-being.
It’s well known that fashion, luxury, and cosmetic beauty are dominant themes in Korean society, which is part of a (sometimes literal) concept of an “investment in face” – whereby increasing social status is equated with moral value. It’s a combination of physical appearance and background – in career, education, or family – that puts women ahead of their peers in the search for the best jobs and eligible partners, and the BBC reported that by conservative estimates, 50 percent of Korean women in their twenties have had some form of cosmetic surgery. Balaji commented that he believes some of these characteristics should be exported – for example, that we should be more willing to experiment with cosmetic surgeries in the west, and not place so much emphasis on natural beauty over intentional improvements. I worry that competitiveness in beauty standards is a zero-sum game that doesn’t make people happier, but I do like the fact that cosmetic surgery can fix problems that would otherwise worry people.
And what about Korea and web3? I think that’s a post for another time. But I do believe that Korea has massive cultural capital and NFTs have a way of transmuting cultural capital to financial capital. This could be very good for artists there who otherwise leak profits to companies like Netflix. I loved watching k-dramas like Crash Landing on You, or My Mister, and I’m aware that watching them on Netflix probably detracts from Korea’s revenue. I’m excited to see the creative applications that will come from Korea.
That’s all I’ll say for now on my excitement and thoughts on Korea. I’m at the airport at JKF ready to board my flight. If anyone wants to meet up, talk, or invite me to participate in any events near Seoul, please let me know!