What is “Korean Culture“? The term is abstract yes. It is also, if you’re feeling picky, somewhat vague. You might be wondering “what?” Korean culture, at “where?“- Undoubtedly, it is a hard term to define because it is something which is connected to, rather than being separate to, wider contexts. For example, North and South Korea are both “Korean” in the cultural sense, but obviously they are very different. We however, want to keep it simple. In this post, we define culture in a simple way by identifying a set of common behaviours, values and rituals that have a guiding influence on how a given people live and think about the immediate world; in this case, exclusive of politics. Thus, although it can be noted that whilst the way Koreans in both countries live could not be further apart, nevertheless there some are common themes that continue to manifest in both societies. Thus here, we provide an overview to Korean culture, something which on your DPRK tour will help you better understand your guides and those you come into contact with.
The Historical Background: Neo-Confucianism
Traditional Korea is long gone, but its legacy lives on in both countries. In the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea up until the late 19th century, the official ideology of the state was Neo-Confucianism, a more rigorous interpretation of the philosophy derived from China. This philosophy was core to how Korean people understood and positioned themselves in the world. Confucianism taught that society must operate in a harmonious order, placing the pursuit of such harmony at the centre of all things. To achieve this, it set out that people must conform to ritualistic conduct in public. Society must be virtuous and people must avoid conflict. Social obligation was centered around given relationships and an ordered hierarchy. For example, children must be loyal to parents, wives to husbands (it was very patriarchal), younger siblings to older siblings, students to teachers and so on. Everybody’s role was clearly defined and set out. Self-interest was to be managed through a culture of reciprocity, where one favour must be returned by another. This bore social order considerable contrast to a western society, whereby ideas such as equality and individualism have held sway.
Culture in The Modern Koreas
Of course, things have changed. In both of its forms, Korea adopted western ideologies and political systems under the new mantle of the nation state. These included socialism, communism, democracy and liberty. In turn, changing economic systems would also change life and society; not least in the South where consumerism, mass media and full urbanisation have set in. Still, characteristics of Confucian life continue to hold sway in what people think and do. Here is where we set that out:
First of all, both Koreas are still at large, highly conformist societies. Although this is took to an immense extent in the North given the political system itself requires it, it is nevertheless the norm in the South too. In general, koreans feel a strong obligation to conform to given social etiquette, behaviours and ideas, much more so than what western societies require. For example, in the South, conformist culture has led modern fashion to develop paramount importance amongst certain social groups. Look around Seoul on a typical day, all young men have the same hair style, many wear an identical pair of glasses too. In winter, all young women where the same type of long padded coat, and so on. You see those seats designated for elderly people on buses and metros? Even if the place is crowded to the hilt and there are no old people around, those seats remain empty. That’s how serious it is took. Based on the longstanding principle of virtuous conduct in public and respect for seniority, Korean society brings a pressure to conform, it manifests in unique ways.
Social obligation remains paramount too. Koreans place the family at the centre of their lives and obligate themselves strictly to the expectations of their parents. For the cause of the family name, it is the duty of the child to live up to these. They must do so through commitment to study. Like in neighbouring countries, there is a lingering stigma that a child that fails to do well “brings shame” on the family name. As a result, education is competitive. North Korea offers an interesting take on this. In a very Confucian way, the state incorporates itself as a means of “extended family”- The Kims are the fathers of the nation and derive a right to rule from a so called virtuous and exemplary family name, which is core to Confucian tradition. Thus, whilst North Korean filial piety to family remains paramount, the government becomes a part of that picture.
Interacting with Koreans
Given the emphasis on proper conduct,conformity and face in public, when interacting with a Korean person, politeness and courtesy remain paramount. Whilst such is obviously similar with some cultures, one point to note is that to strangers, such behaviour may sometimes take preference over an expression of true thoughts or feelings in certain social situations. For example, if the matter is something that may upset, offend or appear impolite, then a Korean may not give the desired answer, fearing losing face in public by starting contention (hence conformity). As a result, expect Koreans to say pleasing and complimentary things to you a lot, speak humbly of themselves and never ask for material things upfront. In visiting the DPRK, this is important to remember, as whilst your guides may expect like a tip and gifts; they will not however, ask you forthright in the way let’s say, Americans do. Nor will they on the other hand, express public dissatisfaction if you don’t. However, behind the scenes this will not do you any favours…
This leads us to our next point, how do you build the trust and confidence of Koreans to get to know them in a meaningful way? The answer is to build reciprocal relationships with them. Like many cultures, Koreans will be comfortable to be express their mind to you once they know and trust you well, which of course is an important factor in such a society. This takes time, but it is a meaningful work to invest in. To do this, you need to place yourself within the sphere of person to person obligation, the key principle which Korean society functions on. Some ways of doing this include giving gifts which express appreciation (very important in North Korea: again you will not be asked), returning favours that are offered to you (you must be astute to notice this), providing them public face by praising them in front of other colleagues, and so on. If you master these basic principles you will find your experience in either Korea becomes a lot better.
Finally, what use is any of this if you don’t speak Korean? No culture is truly understood nor immersed in without its language. That is why, if you want to engage with Korean culture at a premium level of depth and quality, we have on offer our fantastic language study program at Kim Chol-Ju University, Pyongyang. Either way, we encourage you to think broadly and differently about the peoples and cultures of the world. Korean culture is in every sense fascinating and much worth learning about! We hope you can take something from this!