In South Korea, a War Between Old and New

By Max Fisher

South Korea today boasts one of the world's largest economies, a well-educated population, and a robust democracy. Home-grown brands like Samsung and Hyundai command special respect in high-tech fields from telecommunications to robotics. The country's liberal society, remarkably open for East Asia, attracts top Chinese talent like a magnet. So it's easy to understand why much of the world, even within South Korea, forget the nation's history before it entered the global elite.



Kang Ki-Kab remembers. An informal leader of the so-called "peasant movement" in South Korea, Ki-Kab is a dairy farmer serving an improbable second term in the national legislature. He wears a traditional robe and long beard, stages frequent hunger strikes, and attracts frequent media attention for his outlandish antics. Ki-Kab frets about the disappearing agrarian population, which is quickly melting into the ever-expanding cities. With more than four-fifths of the population living in cities and an economy that has little use for plum farms, he is probably fighting a losing battle.

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But it is precisely Ki-Kab's hopeless crusades, and the theatrical zest with which he wages them, that make him such a compelling figure to South Koreans. He embodies a centuries-old Korean legacy that still lurks behind the surprisingly thin veneer of a Western-style society. Only 40 years ago, before it aggressively globalized, the country's farm-based economy was comparable to the poorest of Africa. Ki-Kab's traditional dress, though outlandish in the halls of National Assembly, might look perfectly natural in the more yellowed pages of Korean family photo albums. It's likely, as Ki-Kab's critics complain, that his romanticized portrayal of old agrarian Korea is an exaggeration. But it must be popular nonetheless, as he won a 2008 reelection campaign he was widely expected to lose.

Ki-Kab probably could have warned South Korean politicians they were headed for disaster when, in 2007, they decided to move the capital from Seoul, where it has been since 1394, to Sejong City, 68 miles away. The plan, based on reasonably and legitimate concerns about alleviating Seoul's infamous traffic and over-crowding, has been hugely unpopular and a political disaster. It seems that South Koreans, though eager to put on Western suits and put down the plow, are not quite ready to abandon their 600-year-old capital. At some point there is a line between progress and heritage that South Koreans are unwilling to cross.

Globalization may have whitewashed over traditional Korean culture with the bland homogeneity it spreads wherever it touches. But it has also done wonders for the country. A century ago, Korean life expectancy was in the mid-20s. Today, South Korea has one of the highest life expectancies and lowest infant mortality rates in the world, better on both counts to the U.S. All the same, the erosion of South Korea's heritage is a tragic byproduct of globalization, one clearly causing anxiety among South Koreans. Kang Ki-Kab will not succeed in rolling back the clock to 19th century Korea, and that's a good thing. But one hopes he will succeed in helping Koreans to find as much pride in their ancient history as they do in their modern advances.

Photo: Kang Ki-Kab in 2006, by Samantha Sin for Getty Images

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/03/in-south-korea-a-war-between-old-and-new/37017/