Some of you North Korea buffs might enjoy this column by North Korea scholar Tatiana Gabroussenko in the Asia Times on North Korea’s warrior culture.
I find this part particularly interesting:
A comparison of North and South Korean paradigms demonstrates that the major rupture between two halves of a once homogeneous culture which has been occurring over the last 60 years lies not in their respective attitudes to communism. In many aspects, purely communist messages of North Korean discourse are congruent with communal values of patriarchal Korea and may be quite appealing to a regular South Korean.
What in fact differentiates the North Korean spiritual world from the South Korean one is it’s radical departure from civil traditions of the Confucian learned gentlemen, which traditionally despise brute force and military violence.
North Korean ideology has significantly redefined Korea’s past, present and future. When depicting traditional Korea, North Korean media tend to downplay its Confucian legacy and falsely represent old Korea as an essentially martial state. According to a popular ideological myth, obligatory military service allegedly enjoyed such a high prestige in old Korea that it was widely considered a kind of initiation process for young men, without passing of which they were not allowed to marry.
South Korea experienced something perhaps a bit similar in the 1960s and 1970s, when President Park Chung-hee—himself a general who took power in a military coup—sought to elevate Korea’s military figures of the past (and Yi Sun-sin in particular) to the status of national heroes—see this wonderful piece in JapanFocus on President Park Chung-hee’s rebuilding of Yi Sun-sin’s Hyeonchungsa Shrine.
The only thing in Gabroussenko’s piece I might take exception with is the warning at the conclusion:
In the unlikely case of an emergency, the kangaroo-loving Australian civilians, for example, will be able to hide behind the broad reliable backs of professionals from the Australian Defence Force who have been properly taught to not be overly sentimental in dealing with big bad wolves.
My concern, however, is whether South Korean society can afford to bring up it’s offspring in a similarly pacifist and cotton-wool way. After all, Korea is still technically at war, with all capable men to be enlisted at the time of conflict. There is no doubt that logistically and economically the South Korean military is strong enough to defend itself. However, wars are won not only with good equipment, but with appropriate spirit and psychological preparedness as well.
In combat with the North Korean army, the South Korea would face foes who have been taught since kindergarten not to be too squeamish about crushing the heads of the enemy with a club and to be prepared to cut off their own tongues in case of danger for their comrades.
The North Korean soldier may be a highly motivated fighting man, but the South Korean is no slouch, either. I know it’s become something of a cottage industry in some quarters of the commentariat to poke fun at the metrosexual ways of young Korean manhood. Still, almost all of those metrosexuals get drafted into the military, where they get the slacker metrosexual beaten out of them for two years.
If the military screw-ups that have plagued Korea over the last couple of years are any indication, the way Korea’s offspring have been raised is not the problem. Sure, the widespread belief that war’s unlikely probably doesn’t help preparedness, but the bigger problems are in the upper management, which sometimes appears to be asleep at the wheel.
At any rate, I’m not sure how one corrects the “spirit and psychological preparedness” problem short of bringing back Park Chung-hee’s garrison state, something—the recent election of his daughter as president not withstanding—nobody really wants.