The Korean peninsula, extending southward out of eastern Asia is one of the most homogenous regions in the world. This stems from it being home to one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world. However, this once shared heritage has been lost due to the half-century divide between North and South. This has given way to two distinct nations, each with its own unique culture.
Korean history can be traced back to AD 668 when several competing kingdoms were unified into a single dominion on the Korean Peninsula. This domain was able to remain politically and culturally independent for another thousand years after this. During this time it was influenced by Buddhist and neo-Confuscian ideas. This independence was threatened by invasions by Japan at the end of the 16th century and the Manchus of East Asia in the early 17th. These attempts at invasion led Korea to limit its contact with the outside world, leading to a 250-year-long period of peace and isolation. This began to change in the late 19th century, when Western powers like Britain, France, and the United States made efforts to open trade and diplomatic relations with Korea but met little success.
In the early twentieth century, Japan, China, and Russia vied for control over the peninsula. This culminated in a Japanese victory as they occupied the Korean Peninsula in 1905 and formally annexed it five years later. The next 35 years of colonial rule led to Korea’s industrialization, but its people suffered as Japan attempted to eradicate their distinct national identity. This culminated in them being forced to provide services for the military during World War II.
After Japan was defeated, the United States and Soviet Union divided the peninsula between the anti-communist Republic of Korea to the south and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north. In 1950, South Korea’s declaration of independence led North Korea to invade sparking war between the two. The war ended three years later in an armistice but came at the cost of 2 million lives. Over the following decades, South Korea enjoyed a close relationship with the US and its allies that led it to slowly democratize and grant more political freedom to its citizens. Meanwhile, North Korea attempted to unify its society and push for equality by force and to foster friendly relations with the Soviet Union in the hope of reunifying the Korean Peninsula.
Korean Societal Values
North Korean culture highly emphasizes one’s social position. Those whose family fought against the Japanese or were peasants during the Korean war are considered ‘loyal’ and are thus treated respectfully and given many privileges. Meanwhile those descended from Japanese or people who fought on the ‘wrong’ or tried to defect are considered to have no rights and treated poorly. Those outside of esteemed ranks are expected to blindly follow instructions. While South Koreans also have a strong sense of hierarchy, theirs is based on meritocracy and people are expected to show initiative and treat each other with respect regardless of position.
North Koreans are very direct in conversation. This stems from them being required to denounce themselves and a fellow classmate in elementary school leading them to lack the aversion toward being overly confrontational seen in other cultures. South Koreans, by contrast, tend to be incredibly indirect to the point that businesses will forgo sending out rejection letters to interviewees to avoid upsetting them. Though in recent years, shyness has begun to be perceived negatively, leading bolder communication patterns to become more prevalent.
North Korea is exceedingly collectivistic with one’s actions being expected to serve the nation as a whole, while pursuing one’s own desires is viewed as selfish and looked down upon. This leads the communist regime to clamp down on ‘capitalist’ behaviors and to society actively ostracizing those who express themselves differently. South Korea, though also collectivistic, is much more accepting of individualism, largely due to western influences. This combination has led to a highly diligent workforce with society putting strong emphasis on one’s schooling. This pressure leads stressful circumstances to be viewed positively as they provide an opportunity to show ones ingenuity and tenacity.
Korea Culture: Conclusion
North and South Korea are two radically different nations despite their shared history. North Korea’s emphasis on social position creates a strong hierarchy that is juxtaposed by South Korea’s meritocracy. How people communicate is also radically different as egalitarian attitudes in South Korea lead people to speak indirectly to avoid offending anyone while North Korea’s focus on identifying one another’s weaknesses leads to more direct conversation that might even be considered blunt. Lastly, their contrasting views on collectivism lead to North Korea having a more cohesive idea of social identity while individualistic attitudes in South Korea lead self-improvement to be prized as a high virtue.