North Korea’s ‘culture of warriors’

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.

  • SomeguyinKorea

    It’s foolish to stereotype South Koreans and North Koreans in such a way.  Case in point, we Canadians are supposedly very polite, even pacifists, and yet we performed magnificiently well in every conflict we’ve participated in.

  • Cm

    “where they get the slacker metrosexual beaten out of them for two years.”
    That two years is 18 months, less than two years. Last time they were talking, they were going to reduce it even further.  Most young South Koreans feel serving in the military is a complete waste of time.  Many don’t even know who the real enemy of South Korea is.   I think it’s high time for South Korea to think about increasing defense spending, professionalizing the military and do away with the draft, before the quality of the forces continue to degrade from apathy, lack of training, and complete loss of purpose.  The days when Korea was able to whip up hundreds of thousands of elite crack troops to serve in Vietnam War, are long bygone era in another space and time. 

  • pawikirogii 석아

    once again a westerner is telling the world korean men arent men. westerners thought the same about the vietnamese man. we all know what happened w that.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    Have you ever actually visited Korea?

  • KWillets

    Those North Korean bayonet charges will certainly be formidable.  Not to mention the unicorns.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    Why does she say “with all capable men to be enlisted at the time of conflict.”? Are women to have no part in the defense of the country? Is this yet another frminist who wants equal rights with unequal responsibilities?

  • joey

    traditionally despise brute force and military violence.

  • joey

    I think it’s high time for South Korea to think about increasing defense spending..

  • Jakgani

    and I don’t know why they even bothered to mention “Kangaroo loving” Australians in it.

    (1) Australians don’t love Kangaroos – they eat them!  (and use them to attract tourists)

    (2) Australians not having to do compulsory military service etc – is similar to most other Native-English speaking countries.
    They are not “hiding behind” the broad reliable backs of professionals from the Australian Defence Force

    Just like Canadians, Australians have also volunteered and served alongside their allies in many major wars and faught very gallantry.

    Many south Koreans do seem to be “pro-North-Korean” and “pro-communist” – but then just show them some pictures
    of 꽃제비 in North Korea ( pics – ) and they quickly decide that they don’t want to belong in that type of society 

    – especially the younger people who thought that Moon would win the elections and bring the two Koreas together – those young Koreans have been brought up spoilt and “Gangnam style” – show them those pictures and ask them if they still want to be like North Korea.

    You will find that they don’t want communism or to join with North Korea – they are just babbling what they have been taught to think in middle and high school.

  • Hardycornstew

    The KATUSAs at Yongsan have it really rough.

  • ig5959292ee

     foad please.

  • YangachiBastardo

    Agree 100%, get away with the draft, go pro, and pour adequate resources into it, what’s the stance of the Army top brass on this ? 

  • DC Musicfreak

    I agree with the Marmot’s critique of this author’s handling of South Korean troops. The bigger issue, as I see it, is perfectly nailed by B.R. Meyers:, I think the general problem is that South Korea does not have, the South Korean public lacks 국가정신 (state or national spirit). In other words, lacks patriotism. In South Korea, you have very strong nationalism, but the nationalism undermines state patriotism, or 국가정신. And the North Koreans are aware of this. They know that if they attack the South Korean army, the South Korean people will not be very angry. The South Korean people get much more angry when the Japanese say something bad about Dokdo. So, I think the North Koreans are aware of this. They are aware that South Korea is very weak in this respect. And I think it’s a very dangerous problem, and I don’t think that enough people in South Korea are aware of this problem of the lack of 국가정신. When you have a divided nation, in other words, a divided 민족 (nation or people), and only one half of that 민족 has 국가정신, namely North Korea, then other half is in a very dangerous and weak position. We saw this in Vietnam as well. In many ways, South Korea is similar to South Vietnam because in South Vietnam as well, nationalism undermined patriotism. 

  • JJ

    But they’re still dwarves. It’d take 3 or 4 NK “fighting men” to take down one 6’2” SK “metrosexual,” especially if they’re trying to take his man-bag. NK for all its alleged fighting process still doesn’t approach the stature of an ancient Spartan. 

  • YangachiBastardo

    you may have a point

    (fast forward to the end) 

  • DC Musicfreak

    Overall, true, with reports of starvation in army ranks and all North Koreans younger than 50 or so almost a head shorter than South Koreans.. But you’d have to think that NK fields some pretty tough commando units, who still get proper nutrition and training.  

  • Cm

    What is this, an MMA fight?

    Call me silly, but I thought bullets and missiles will kill even the toughest, the strongest, and the biggest person there is.

    But I got to admit, the picture of three dwarfs trying to beat on one tall, Kpop style, blonde, metrosexual male, was funny as hell.

  • SomeguyinKorea

    They wouldn’t last long.  Soldiers need food and supplies, which North Korea would be unable to provide.

  • CalendarCalligraphy

    It is quite silly to apply broader historical and political trends to say something about the personal characteristics of individual people. People are people. In the unlikely event of invasion, South Koreans would react just the same as an American, Iraqi, Vietnamese, whatever nationality would.