A cultural revolution on hold;The economy;Korea Study Guide

18th September 1998 at 01:00
South Korea was all set for a century of culture and social progress after its rapid industrialisation. Then came economic trouble. Jeremy Sutcliffe reports.

SOUTH KOREA has reached a crossroads. It is just 50 years since, south of the 38th parallel, the Republic of Korea came into being. Having emerged from the ashes of the Second World War and fought a civil war with its communist neighbour in the North, it has become one of the world's great economic powerhouses.

Its people, flush with the wealth that came with economic success, had been looking forward to shifting gear. After achieving phenomenal economic growth - output has increased a hundredfold in 30 years - South Koreans wanted to see progress in other areas of their lives: in education, in social life and culturally. The 21st century, it was confidently asserted, would be the century of culture.

This cultural revolution is now, temporarily, on hold. As the country gets to grip with the crisis caused by the collapse in Asian stock values, families are being forced to accept austerity. The new government of Kim Dae Jung has introduced wide-ranging industrial and financial reforms, as part of a rescue package agreed with the International Monetary Fund. The economy is once again the country's prime concern.

Yet, paradoxically, South Korea's plight is likely to increase the pressure for change. Much of the blame for the crisis has been heaped on the education system for failing to produce entrepreneurs and managers with the right sort ofcreative skills.

Many Koreans look with envy at Germany which, despite fighting two world wars, has invested heavily in education and developing skills as a cornerstone of economic policy. That Germany has managed to sustain its economic success, despite the cost of reunification with the former communist East Germany, has particular resonance in a country still divided by the Cold War.

Demand for social change has been fuelled by South Korea's booming economy. In Seoul, the capital, and other cities, there has been an explosion in the number of shops and restaurants, as Koreans demand the latest in food, fashion, records, microwave ovens and computers. Increasingly, this diversity of choice has been reflected in a more general demand for change and the gradual liberalisation of society.

For much of the past 50 years, the country has been ruled by the military, with a succession of authoritarian presidents. There have been coups, martial law, assassinations and corruption, prompting popular resistance with student demonstrations and strikes. In 1992, however, Kim Young Sam, a centre-right democrat, became the first civilian president for 32 years. The full transition to civilian democracy now seems firmly in place after the smooth switch to the centre-left government of Kim Dae Jung.

The new president is expected to accelerate the process of liberalisation. While other countries in the region, notably China, have sought to uphold "Asian values" - emphasising the importance of hierarchy and the community - Kim Dae Jung has gone out of his way to support individual expression as a key democratic value. His election has raised the hopes of educated young Koreans who regard education reforms and the further relaxation of social constraints as the way to develop a more expressive society, able to harness people's creativity and encourage them to display a wider range of emotions.

But South Korea remains, for the most part, a conservative society, steeped in the traditions of more than 2,000 years of history and the values of Confucius. While Western culture plays an increasingly prominent place in the high street and in the minds of Korean youth, few want to turn their backs on the country's traditions and achievements. Quite the reverse.

For much of the 20th century, Korea's existence has been under threat, first by the Japanese, who annexed the country in 1910 and subjected it to 35 years of repressive colonial rule, ending with Japan's defeat at the end of the Second World War. This was followed in quick succession by partition and the continuing threat of invasion by North Korea. Even today, despite the end of the Cold War and a slight thaw in relations with Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, it does not feel completely secure.

The country's rapid economic progress began with General Park Chung Hee, who came to power after a military coup in 1961. He set about modernising industry with finance from Western and Japanese loans. While his policies laid the foundations for economic success, growing opposition to his 18-year military rule (he was assassinated in 1979) stressed the threat to Korean culture from creeping Westernisation.

Student leaders, who have played a large part in the reform-process that eventually brought a return to civilian democracy, expressed their opposition to government policies by reintroducing Korea's centuries-old mask dance and using traditional political drama to make their point.

Partly as a result of this pressure, successive governments have resuscitated Korean cultural traditions. Time-honoured skills in music, dance, costume-making and ceramics have been revived, while many historic temples and monuments were restored (some of them, unfortunately, using concrete). There are now many museums that celebrate Korean history and culture and give pride of place to the demonstration of ancient skills in calligraphy, printing and pottery going back well over 1,000 years.

Interest in contemporary art and design is growing, encouraged by the new liberal climate, alongside this revival in traditional arts. It is to the creative industries - publishing, the performing arts, multimedia, film, video, fashion and computer-aided design - that South Korea now looks to build on its manufacturing success.

Much, however, needs to be done before this aspiration is realised. While the economic crisis has underlined the need for diversity, the reforms in education that will help bring it about will take time. A return to economic growth, and the increasing influence South Korea is likely to exert in the global affairs of the next century, will also increase its cultural influence abroad.

The rest of the world is only beginning to feel the effects of Korean culture. But for South Koreans, proud of their rich heritage and traditions,a new revolution in culture has begun.

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