This post is part of a series about Korea and the recent transition in Korea to discovering new meaning in money through a rapidly growing capitalist culture. I was inspired to write about Korea after visiting Seoul this summer with my sister. Korea is kimchi-tastic.
My recent trip to Seoul, Korea was exactly what I needed. I got to step back from my everyday life and take apart perceptions that I have about life and how the world works. This can be useful when you forget that one way of seeing the world isn’t always the way that the world works.
The streets are where I saw Korea’s recent and rapid transformation into a capitalist economy. My sister and I walked down Seoul’s streets every night when we were there. I saw couples holding hands, strolling down streets lined with Western coffee shops, such as Starbucks and The Coffee Bean. These cafes are so popular now that it was hard to find a seat, especially at night, which is where Koreans throw out my Western assumption that coffee is a part of a culture’s morning routines.
It was only in 1987 that South Korea transitioned from out of military dictatorship to a more free capitalist country. With this change came the blending of older Confucian values that emphasizes harmony, family, and a certain social order to things with the choices, wealth, and excess that accompany a capitalist culture.
There has been a lot of attention lately on Korea and its contributions to the tech industry as a part of Korea’s introduction to the world’s global stage and economy. The recent lawsuit by Apple against Samsung, which is headquartered in Seoul, for patent infringements has given Korea this spotlight.
Being at the center of tech is a good thing, but what about Korea’s intellectual movement? I wanted to learn more about it, so while we sat at a bar near one of Seoul’s universities with a friend who is teaching English, I asked about Korea’s intellectual movements. Who is asking the essential questions about Korea’s transformation into a capitalist economy that will help drive Korean identity? What are Korea’s cultural exports that contribute to this conversation about Korea’s new role?
He said that Korean intellectualism wasn’t quite on the center stage of Korea today. While Korea knows that capitalism won’t tear it away from its rich Confucian history and love of kimchi, Korea is still trying to figure out its identity. I saw this reflected in an article in Korea IT Times. Professor Emanuel Pastreich, professor of Humanitas College at Kyung Hee University in Seoul and director of the Asia Institute, says, “The truth is that most intellectuals in the United States, Europe or even Japan cannot name any Korean writers, have not read the essays of Korea’s major intellectuals, and have little sense of the depth of Korea’s history.” Professor Pastreich goes on to say, “The highest priority is for us to introduce Korea’s cultural past. There is an incredible wealth of writings by Koreans on Buddhism, Confucianism, self, and society produced over the last two millennia that has barely been touched.”
While Seoul might not have translated all of its intellectual history into terms that we English speakers can understand, Korea sits at the beginning of a long learning process about who it is as a country based on the economic reform that has taken on Korea so rapidly. Shifting through the meaning of culture and its connection to its economy is like my travels to Seoul. But if the rest of the world is interested in Samsung and the girls in the coffee shops are most interested in their mocha lattes, I think I’m more interested in Korea’s intellectual economy and what’s to come.