Transformation of a Culture

By Beth O'Hara - November 2014

Transformation of South Korean culture

Deborah Ooten and I are traveling to Seoul, South Korea in November, 2014, to teach Spiral Dynamics® for the South Korean International Enneagram Association. This land of kimchi, delicious and hellaciously spicy food, and technology giants like Samsung, has been in the midst of massive transformations over the past few decades, rendering it almost unrecognizable when contrasted against the South Korea of the past.

South Korea: The Past Few Decades
In the 1980s, South Korea was a third world country, with squat toilets and little infrastructure: the GDP was less than that of Ghana and it was significantly poorer than North Korea; it was illegal for women to be the head of the household; and school children were taught through frequent thrashings.

Now in South Korea
Fast forward a quarter of a century or so later, and South Korea is one of the most technologically progressive countries in the world, and even the public toilets have the latest advances with built-in bidet, dryer, and choice of music. It’s also the 15th largest economy in the world, and a major exporter of entertainment to Asia, Russia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. [i] Women’s rights have come a long way, corporal punishment in schools has seen its last days, and the South Korean cultural scene is a smash sensation to at least half of the world.

Speaking to my Vietnamese teenage neighbors about the upcoming trip resulted in frantic jumping up and down, rattling off their favorite South Korean stars, and begging to go in my suitcase! “Everyone from Vietnam wants to go to Seoul”, they said. This is called “Soft Power,” by political scientist Joseph Nye, and is power wielded through image instead of might or coercion, which can actually be more effective and influential than military or economic power.

Clearly, South Korea has become a major influencer on the world stage. How has this impacted its people and what is behind these incredible changes?

Transformation and Change
First of all, how does a culture even change? According to Clare W. Graves' work (and Spiral Dynamics®)[ii], cultural transformation occurs through an interplay of changing external life conditions that create pressure for shifts in the internal landscape (psychology and neurobiology). South Korea has historically been heavily influenced by Confucianism, an ethical and philosophical system dating from about 500 BCE. In South Korea, this system has been applied through an emphasis on strict codes of conduct, self-sacrifice, and hierarchical cultural structure.

South Korea has been invaded numerous times, which has formed a part of their cultural legacy – to be strong, an independent culture, and to never be beaten down. The financial crisis of the 1990s in Asia heavily affected South Korea; saving face and avoiding shame is a big motivating factor in the South Korean culture. President Kim Young-sam negotiated a loan from the International Monetary Fund (a shameful act in the culture) to save the Korean economy. He admitted publicly that he felt shame in doing so, and took it on himself to pull South Korea out of the debt crisis. His successor, President Kim Dae-jung, had been the head of a huge public relation company, and hatched a radical plan: to promote business, he wired the entire country for high-speed internet accessible to everyone (they are light years ahead of the US), and promoted a brilliant movement called Hallyu (a term for South Korean culture and entertainment) that has become a hot item for import around the world. For a country with no natural resources and little arable land, what they have accomplished is just short of miraculous. Their cultural ideals have served them well in moving rapidly into the technological age and making a huge, lasting splash on the entertainment scene.

The Reactions
Newton observed “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” and this axiom applies beyond physics as well. These rapid changes in life conditions have created a cultural tidal wave for South Koreans. As mentioned earlier, women’s rights have progressed significantly, as have children’s rights. The hierarchical structure is starting to crumble, and children now talk back to adults (which was unheard of, mere decades before). Teachers don’t have the authority they used to, and teenagers and young adults are becoming more self-expressive – individuality is becoming a positive, rather than a negative. Music and acting are now desired fields of work, a stark contrast to what was once seen as an unsavory career.

Superstar Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame (who still has the most watched YouTube with 2 trillion views – fully double the number of views of 2nd place, Justin Bieber’s “Baby”) is considered the bad boy of South Korea for talking publicly about his poor relationship with his parents, not working hard in school, and being rebellious (which in South Korea equates to smoking marijuana and stepping on the grass when there is a ‘do not step on grass’ sign). Psy is a poster child for the shift in South Korea to more self-expression, yet there is high cultural punishment for not conforming. He rejects the Confucian influenced norms and steps out into individuality, yet from his interviews, this seems to take an emotional toll on him.

Suicide – a warning sign
This emotional backlash isn’t just happening with the rich and famous of Gangnam, however - South Korea has the 3rd highest suicide rate in the world[iii]. High suicide rates are a key expression of a society’s health. The culture as a whole is still catching up with the huge changes in life conditions.

How can South Korea understand their shifting pressures? What is happening that they are willing to lose people rather than head the messages of needed change?

Transformation and the Future of South Korea
Korea appears to be undergoing a transition from a self-sacrificing, hierarchical, absolutistic culture (DQ/Blue in Spiral Dynamics® language) to a self-expressive, multiplistic and more autonomous culture (ER/Orange). In this type of transition, authorities are pushed against, and those who are stepping out often get punished. Does this correlate to the high suicide rates?

When a culture in transition clamps down on emerging self-expression, the social rejection and punishment creates emotional as well as spiritual scarring, and there is a ‘closing down’ of society, person by person.[iv]

Authorities in a transitional culture can’t put themselves in the way of the tide forever.

The way this transition is handled will affect future generations, as each group will parent or teach like the group that raised them. South Korea must be conscious of how they are handling this shift; South Koreans have a momentous choice to make. Will they hobble the future forever, or be a part of the forward momentum?

Authorities must examine a hard question: Do they want to be the authority that was damaging to their society and getting in the way of South Korea’s evolution, or do they want to be the foundation of encouragement for exploration and moving forward into a more self-expressive world, one that values inner authority over hierarchical authority?

If South Korean leaders and social influencers can learn to nurture the emerging self-expression, this rapid change can result in forward momentum that allows them to soar. Otherwise, South Koreans will have to fight each other to gain their inner freedom.

Parents, teachers, leaders, cultural icons, and elders have a chance to support their country to succeed, and with every success comes new problems. These new issues can be indicators of natural order and things going right - they are not necessarily an indicator of things going wrong. It is essential for South Koreans to understand the nature of their transition to be able to guide it effectively.

[i] Hong, Euny. The Birth of Korean Cool, 2014.

[ii] Graves, Clare W. Eds. Cowan, Christopher and Todorovic, Natasha. The Never Ending Quest, 2005.


[iv] Notes from phone conversation with Natasha Todorovic, October 12, 2014.

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