Articles From the November 1997 Unification News


A View Of Korean Culture

by Michael Breen

Michael Breen was a journalist in Seoul for 15 years. He now lives in Britain where he is writing a book about Korea.

One morning many years ago, in the church headquarters building in London, I sat down next to a Korean sister to have breakfast. She was prodding rather miserably at her corn flakes, and seemed absorbed, so I didn’t say anything, reminding myself that silence is OK for Orientals.

The cereal done, she stared for a moment at a slab of bread and started eating it without butter or marmalade.

"I guess English food is different for you?" I ventured, trying to be culturally sensitive. At this, she burst into tears and rushed out of the room.

Until that experience, I thought you were only supposed to cry about major issues such as John the Baptist’s failure, and spiritual children who leave, unless you were really selfish. Somehow, dry bread didn’t fit into the picture. But, like many British members, I labored under a happy illusion that oriental members were spiritually superior, and figured that something deeper was going on.

It was. Culture clash. Later I would experience 15 years of it living in Korea.

Of course, in the Unification Movement, you don’t need to go abroad to find it. Many have it in their marriages. And in some ways, all non-Koreans may experience a culture clash simply by being in the movement. This is because, as it has grown, the international movement has become increasingly controlled by Koreans, who bring with them a particular culture of management.

You’re always on shaky ground when you start classifying people by nationality. In the total make-up, I’d guess it counts for about 15 percent and is less significant than gender, character, class and occupation. So, in talking about nationality, you naturally tend to generalize. Koreans are of course as varied as any other peoples, but they are culturally and racially about the most homogeneous nation on earth. If nothing else, this is suitable justification for the generalizations which follow.

I find Koreans are wonderful as friends. I can think of no person I’d rather have with me if I was stuck on Camp 6 on Mt. Everest in a storm, provided he doesn’t smoke. But, much as I like Koreans, I find they are generally difficult to work under when you’re in the junior position. So I wouldn’t want my climbing companion to be the expedition leader. But, if it’s any consolation, Korean bosses tend to be nicer to foreigners than to their own.

The Confucianism that underpins Korean society means they start from a very different place than westerners. Bottom line existential reality is not God, but relationships with people. Thus their feet are more on the ground than ours. They’re more materialistic and people-oriented than we are. We are more internal and vertical because we relate to God and our conscience more than to other people. Westerners do better on desert islands than easterners.

While Confucianism explains the emphasis on ceremony and etiquette, it does not explain the earthy passion of Koreans. This comes from the more ancient tradition of shamanism, according to which to be fully human, you have to grip life with both hands. When Koreans happily make vulgar noises in public, it’s not because of a farming background. Well, not only. It’s because the shamanist streak makes a virtue out of earthy expressiveness.

Another contradiction is that while Confucianism makes people very narrow and conservative, the shamanist thinking makes Koreans very tolerant. In many ways, they are far less judgmental than western liberals pretend to be. They have a nice habit in Korea when a drunk gets on a bus of standing up and giving him a seat. In Britain, an obstreperous drunk would get a lot of disapproving looks and possibly a punch in the face. But the Koreans give people space when they need it to get over what’s bothering them.

Korean relationships are structured so that everyone except same-age classmates and friends are either above or below in status. The learned ethical obligations tend to stress duties of the inferiors, rather than responsibilities of superiors.

Koreans have been royally shafted by their leaders. In this century the country was handed over to Japan by the leadership without a fight. Given the lack of confidence in leadership (maybe there are other reasons, too), Koreans are very fractious. There’s a joke that while two Japanese on a desert island would create one political party, two Koreans would create three parties-one each and a coalition. This difference is apparent when you look at companies and labor relations in the two countries.

Both the Korean and the Japanese seek to expand their family-type relationships to larger groups. But for the Korean the extent of trust is limited. The Japanese can be loyal to nation and organization. But this is very difficult for the Korean, who tends to seek sub-groups within organizations as objects of loyalty. Despite their stated patriotism, I do not consider Koreans to be really very patriotic. Given half a chance, millions would become American citizens. The real Korean loyalty is to family. They find it extremely difficult to cooperate with non-family members.

Koreans have emerged from a fearful world. In this horrible century, Koreans are up there with the Poles, the Cambodians and others for sheer enormity of suffering caused by political factors. It’s touched every family. In my book, this misery is reason enough to feel compassion for them. These are a deeply scarred people.

As if external political events were not enough, Koreans have in many ways been their own worst abusers. They’ve all been bullied by dictators, teachers, police, army officers, bosses, fathers and big brothers, and anyone else with more authority. Women suffer terribly from abuse. The first words they may hear is the "Oh no," of their father and grandparents when they’re born. That assumes, of course, that they’ve made it to the birthing room. There has been so much aborting of female fetuses that, when it became noticeable in the imbalance in kindergarten classes a few years ago, the government made it illegal for doctors to reveal the results of Ultrasound tests.

It’s not illegal for a husband to beat his wife. I’ve lived in two places where next door the drunken dad regularly beat up his wife. The mothers’ recourse has been to love their children with a passion. Grown men can be reduced to blubbering wrecks when they recall what their mothers went through to raise them. They would crawl a million miles over broken glass for their mothers. But not for their fathers. This is particularly true of the generation of fathers now in their 50s and 60s. They were such workaholics that their children hardly knew them. One model workaholic, Kim Woo-chung, the chairman of the Daewoo Group, always worked seven-day weeks and took his first day off work in 30 years after his son was killed in an auto accident. The Promise Keepers are a bit late to save this generation.

God was no comfort because historically, the shamanistic spiritual world, until the recent arrival of Christianity, was peopled by spirits and ancestors that got angry and wrecked your life if not appeased.

For all these reasons, Koreans kind of approach the world with a personal confidence from mother’s love, but with clenched fists.

They are a very physical and forthright people. If you have a spot on your nose which everyone in the center is politely pretending isn’t there, it will be the Korean who says in a loud voice, "Hey, you’ve got a spot." But when you are hurt inside, he may be the first to notice.

Koreans get slapped around a lot. All the men have done military service and they’re used to being thumped. When Cleophas, the Zimbabwean Heungjin-nim, came to Seoul in 1987, most of the participants didn’t really know what was going on but getting thrashed didn’t really faze them. In our "conference" which happened overnight, the brothers were sprawled in the stairwells and offices of the headquarters while the sisters got done. We were supposed to be praying for our wives, but the further down the basement you got, the more people were just crashed out. Every so often, a church leader would come round kicking everyone awake. "Wake up, you sons-of-b****s, you’re supposed to be praying" he yelled. When he came to a westerner, he’d bow and smile and say "How are you?" and go on down the corridor kicking. The kicked member would open one eye, grunt, and go to sleep again. It’s their way of conveying that they’re not impressed. I love people like that, the kicker because he lets rip and the kickee because he’s giving the bird back, as the Americans say.

However, I should point out that this portrait of Koreans may be getting rapidly out of date. No country, with the possible exception of Taiwan, has developed so fast in human history. In 1960, south Korea was on a par with Ghana. Now it is overtaking Britain. As a result each generation thinks and behaves very differently from the last. And a new generation comes every five years.

Our church leaders come from that generation which upturned the social system and brought Korea out of the paddy fields and into Silicon Valley. Father, and many of the leaders, are from peasant backgrounds and were raised at a time of terrible violence and grinding poverty. When Father says he was hungry every day until his 30s, he’s not making it up. Despite their idealizing of their own country, they have few illusions about the depths of backwardness they have emerged from. There is little pride in the past. For many, the single source of pride is the greatest that a nation can have, to be able to say that Christ was born there.

Scratch a Korean and you will often find unspeakable stories in his family’s experience. One friend in Seoul told me of a relative who was tied by North Korean soldiers to the floor of his house. They stoked up the underfloor heating until he slowly burned to death. South Koreans also committed horrendous atrocities. On Cheju Island in 1948, anti-communist youth groups and police massacred thousands of innocent villagers with bamboo spikes and rifles to dissuade survivors from supporting communist rebels.

Has government protected them in peacetime? No, government has always been the biggest bully. Last year I met a man who had been released from prison after 44 years. Most of it was in solitary confinement. His crime? He was a communist who stubbornly refused to recant. Back in 1951, his family arrived after the trial was over and were told that if they’d got there earlier and bribed the judge, they could have got him off. Few people in Korea care about his story.

There are a million tales of power abuse. One elder Koreans member, who is well known to foreign members, was once held on suspicion of murder. He was kept in a hotel room for 12 days by police, naked, and beaten senseless, but wouldn’t confess. They let him go without a word and picked up another suspect, who got the same treatment. "Didn’t you sue?" I asked him. "How long have you been in Korea?" he asked me. The law, I soon learned, and the tax authorities, are weapons in the bully’s armory. When the Segye Ilbo ran stories criticizing the government, authorities threatened Unificationist-run companies with tax probes. The business leaders pressured the newspaper to kill the stories. In this kind of environment, violating law and cheating on taxes is understandable.

So Koreans fear fate and mistrust people something wicked, and with good reason. One of their survival strategies is to harness spirit world, using fortune-tellers, making offerings etc. They also rely of intuition about people. Westerners tend to be impressed with words, but Koreans tend to "feel" people’s vibes. You may have had the sense that while you’re explaining something to a Korean (especially one in a superior position), he’s not really listening. His ears might be, but he’s often trying to sense what you are, whether you’re a decent person or a threat etc. It’s this kind of thing that people are referring to, I think, when they say Koreans are "internal".

Another strategy is to roll over when you’re weak. Don’t be fooled by the bowing. It’s acquiescence, not respect. Koreans tend to dislike bosses and leaders, but they know when to acknowledge superior power. What tends to happen is that when a boss is no longer in power, his successor will completely ignore his projects and his foundation and come in with new projects simply to assert his own authority. I was once invited to give some lectures on ethics in journalism to editors and reporters of the Joong-Ang Ilbo, the daily paper owned by the Samsung Group. It was part of a week-long training session. I got really irritated because no one was paying attention. After the second lecture I asked a few people why they were there and they said that the "training" had been ordered by the new publisher as a way of asserting his authority. Basically, they figured it was a waste of time, but they were going through the motions. So, I started the next lecture addressing this point and then discussing with them whether it would be ethical to expose the sexual scandals of President Kim Young-sam. That seemed to get their attention.

When workers get the power, as Korean labor unions have in recent years, one of the first things they try and do is demand the right to make management decisions. Incredibly, this is sometimes granted. On some newspapers, reporters have the power to veto the appointment of editors. This all derives from mistrust of leadership.

Going overseas, Koreans get into all kinds of trouble because of all this baggage I’m talking about. There are cases of businessmen beating up workers in China and Indonesia, where Koreans feel they are superior. In the West, the problem tends to be corruption. You need to bribe your way in business in Korea and there’s often a naive assumption that this will work in developed countries. The Daewoo Group was stung with a big tax bill in the U.S. in the 1980s and instead of paying it, they spent millions of dollars lobbying. They even bought some property and sold it cheap to George Bush’s son, thinking this was the way to get influence. In the end the tax bill the eventually paid was five times bigger than the original one.

Because of such corrupt practices and also because of a rather tedious obsession with status, Korean managers overseas do not fare so well with white collar workers. However, their warmth and earthiness can be a real plus with blue-collar workers in the West.

From a business viewpoint, Korea’s is a "low-trust" culture. It is not easy for people who are not family members to trust one another enough to go into business together. In this regard, Korea is very different from Japan and America, which are "high-trust". (For more on this, I’d recommend the chapter on Korea in the book "Trust" by Francis Fukuyama). The culture-clash problems we are familiar with in the UC come about when people from this low-trust, non-Christian culture, find themselves in charge of people from high-trust, Christian cultures.

The UC presents many complications in this analysis because it is a spiritual group, not a business. One problem is that Korea is being idealized and even made an object of worship.

Father is, of course, a Korean, but he strikes us as more than a Korean. His views are informed by Korean experience and values, but he goes beyond it. One of my few personal experiences with Father was very liberating in this regard. His gave me something once and as I sat down a Korean leader in a loud aside said, "In Korea, when we receive things from True Parents, we do so like this with two hands." I thought I might have inadvertently offended Father and half rose out of my chair to apologize, but he waved me down with a smile and said in English, "Korean culture. Not important."

Still, in general, the UC is very Korean (aside from the Japanese part) because of certain features that Father is unwilling or unable to step in and change. For example, it is:

1. Authoritarian.

Central power is very much in the hands of one man and one man only. Why? If it weren’t, other Korean leaders would have by now hijacked the movement (especially the money) and Father would be a figurehead.

2. Individualistic.

Koreans are low-trust. They do not harmonize like the Japanese. Thus each pursues his own mission and makes sure his lifeline to the power source is intact. To the westerner, Korean leaders appear to be "doing their own thing." The higher they are, the less likely to cooperate with their peers. They know that the way to get on in the UC is create your own career within it. It always amused me how the American members on the staffs of Dr. Pak and Rev Kwak in the 1980s used to joke with each other about their bosses’ rivalry.

This individualism works in another way. Instead of pooling talents and resources and achieving goals through team-work, UC members are in general required to do everything by themselves. Thus, for example, recruitment of new members or gaining signatures for a campaign tends to be a matter for every follower.

3. Status-oriented.

Your status determines how you are treated. Thus the symbols that denote status become very important. For example, being "Mr." is pretty low so you try to go for "Dr." or "Prof." or "Rev". Unlike Chinese, Koreans get very uncomfortable about adopting western names. What many fail to recognize is that western members are going to feel much closer and warmer towards people who do make their names easier, like Peter Kim and Joseph Kamiwatari.

4. Personality-oriented.

Loyalty is not to ideas but to people in power.

5. Top-downism

Korean national development in the last 40 years has followed a very distinct pattern. It began with a visionary leader who held total power, Park Chung-hee. He supported large companies, like Hyundai and Daewoo, which were lead by visionary chairmen who held total power. The worker was irrelevant and, if he got angry, may find himself accused of being a communist and suppressed. But as the country developed and the middle class grew, democratization began to spread. Now in modern Korea, you can no longer ignore the worker, the voter and the consumer. In the UM, though, the old top-downism prevails. In my interpretation, the homechurch and tribal messiah drives in the UC marked a kind democratization, in which members were set free from an authoritarian spiritual community. However, many people ignored these opportunities to set themselves free and resentments spread.

6. Emotional.

A great thing about many Koreans is that they are not afraid of emotion. You can get angry and disagree with them and they won’t hold it against you as long as you don’t embarrass them in public. When they pray and their heart is bursting, the snot and tears fly. Tears are the measure of spirituality in the UC. And rightly so, given the central theme of God’s heart.

7. The Emotional Lever

One odd aspect of Korean emotionalism in the UC is that there is a great tradition in testimony-giving of stressing the hardship and emotional suffering of "Abel" as a strategy for helping "Cain" unite with him in heart. Thus we were all moved to hear how True Children, for example, had suffered persecution at school. However, you don’t get the impression that Abels are all that interested in Cains. Cain can only get emotional if he’s expressing how he’s overcome himself to love Abel.

This is not because Koreans are not sympathetic. It is, I believe, more to do with strategy. The way to win hearts and minds in Christian democracies is often to serve the grass roots and challenge the powerful. In the east Asian environment, this is suicidal. Furthermore, by showing you concern for the grass roots, you may be simply inviting "Cain" into your house to take everything you have.

8. Poor communication.

Koreans are not great communicators with modern, democratic audiences. They seek to demonstrate their authority often by mobilizing large numbers and then expect an audience to listen. This doesn’t always work with westerners who are often mistrustful of people who would seek power.

The western approach of communicating a message verbally is less appealing for Koreans for a very logical reason. Koreans don’t listen. One of their ways of rebelling is to ignore you. In the 1980s when the dictator Chun Doo-hwan used to walk into a reception of, say, 500 people, a few sycophants would stand there holding their gin and tonics and listen to him, while the rest of the room just carried on their conversations.

But in other societies the patterns are different. A PR advisor would say that every time a Unification leader stands up in front of a western audience, he or she should repeat the same core messages. This doesn’t happen. The inspiring parts of the Unification message: God has a broken heart, you have a messianic role to heal it, let’s harmonize, let’s marry foreigners, etc. are poorly communicated.

9. Hierarchical.

In any hierarchical organization, the most important aspect of your work is how you are going to report to your boss. In a religion, this is unfortunate because it means that saving souls is secondary to getting some good tales that will inspire the regional leader.

In this vertical culture, loyalty to leaders and filial love of TP tend to be the prime virtues. You’ll note that at the highest levels of our movement, a person can tumble into obscurity if he is disloyal, but can be given enormous responsibility despite demonstrable and repeated incompetence if he is loyal.

In the UM, you are limited by which country you’re from. Father is not likely to make, say, a Belgian the head of world missions, nor an Ethiopian head of church finances. He has said that when Korea becomes "Adam" upon re-unification, national barriers will cease to have meaning. Perhaps then the UM will become a meritocracy, rendering an individual’s race, nationality and "restoration significance" irrelevant.

10. Politics over service.

In Christian societies, the UC could win hearts and minds through genuine and honestly-conducted charitable activities. But instead, we spend millions on things like getting people like George Bush to appear at our functions, then we pretend he accepts and approves of TP and the DP. The Koreanologist in me sees this as based on a false assumption that Bush is at the top, being an elder statesman, and that acceptance from him will then flow down into the mass of society.

That this happens in western countries is perhaps due to the failure of westerners to convince the Koreans. I can’t escape the conclusion that in some way we have disappointed them. But I can’t figure out how.

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