South Korea’s Real Culture of Shame


Academic literature has extensively documented the so-called ‘culture of shame’ in East Asia, and South Korea is no exception to the phenomenon as a national collective that suffers acutely from fear of losing one’s face — chemyeon as they say in Korean.

Shame over possible loss of one’s honour underpins every aspect of South Korean society, where public shaming is routinely deployed to punish those who deviate from social norms. The ultimate price paid by Cho Hyun-ah, at the center of the “nut rage” scandal, might not be not a prison term but public humiliation of the severest kind meted out by an angry population, who found Cho’s action shameful for herself, the country, and therefore themselves. In the end, the perpetrator, the “national image”, and the public were seen as equally suffering from her single action.

That strange threesome among an individual South Korean, official South Korea, and finally, the South Korean collective in production, infliction, and possession of shame helps elucidate South Korea’s highly strict criminal defamation law for which the country is becoming notorious. It espouses an oxymoronic concept of ‘truthful defamation,’ which stipulates that if the defamatory act is based on facts but with an intent to defame, the accused may still face prison or pay a fine of 5 million KRW. Completely false (as opposed to true) defamations can lead to maximum five years in prison or a fine of up to 10 million KRW. Civil law takes defamation equally seriously, penalizing defamers with compensatory fines and/or the task of restoring the injured party’s reputation with a public apology.

This state-sanctioned protection of the ‘reputation’ underscores the importance South Koreans place on saving a certain projection of the self from negative evaluations by others, with the self, the reputation, and others — all recurrent themes in the South Korean psyche — acting like dissociative personalities of a single person. The self manages the reputation in a way that anticipates criticisms by others, thus internalizing others as a voice of authority; but the self also functions as an other who exerts one’s critical power as a regulatory force on the reputation of those around it. It is such that an individual South Korean can become South Korea the nation, and vice versa. And they are held together in place with the rubberband of nationalism, which reinforces the conflation of individual shame with national shame.

It is with this in mind that we must examine how official South Korea takes keen interest in defending its own reputation, using the criminal defamation law to shield successive administrations and key politicians from criticism at the expense of free speech and human rights, and projecting abroad its highly polished corporate persona as a sparkling nation that perfectly balances some undefinable Oriental mystique with Western science and rationality. The exportation of South Korean culture has thus become a priority for the government, which, obsessed with how best to elevate its national brand in various rankings, sometimes tries so hard that one expert in this matter notes this government is hurting, rather than helping, the image of the nation with its desperation.

Propaganda is hardly an authentic representation, but as an imagination of the self by official South Korea, it has been positioned as a shield with which to dispel shame that must not rain on this sparkling country, and to conceal the reality of South Korea. Truth is not central to this project, only the image of the self.

This explains the curious remark recently made to foreign correspondents by Kim Moo-sung, the chairman of the ruling Saenuri Party: “The world sees South Korea through your eyes. The more the good news reported by you, the better the image of our country and the higher the national status. […] We wish that the story you write about our country delivers not just the news but also your affection for South Korea to the outside world”.

If you are a friend of South Korea, you do not shame it. You do not only report news, but “good news” and “affection”.

That attitude of the South Korean government is precisely the problem, because South Korea abounds in things that it should be ashamed of instead of masking from attention. You need only look outside the window to see it in millions of hapless old men and woman collecting rubbish, a highly pressurised education system that has victimised generations of young people, rampant violence and suicides in the military, enslavement of disabled workers right under the country’s watch, and booming Christian cults that telegraph abject disenchantment with here and now. Or read the available statistics: ludicrous work hours, alarming degrees of economic and social inequality, depressing suicide figures.

Yet instead of appropriate shame and solutions to the situation, the only reaction we see is wounded pride, for South Korea of its own imagination cannot appear as suffering from such ailments before that most tiresome of phrases: the ‘international community’. In lieu of a mea culpa, South Korea’s government has seriously pursued the German notion of ‘Fremdscham’. Roughly translated as ‘to die for’, it describes embarrassment felt on behalf of someone else. The idea is that every South Korean must learn to be ashamed of things that she or he has no control over: problems of the state’s own making to the detriment of the people who are, ostensibly, with the state, for the state, of the state. South Korean Nationalism is built on this magic dust.

This can go on only for so long. Right before the people’s eyes the carefully calibrated image of their country is giving way to the more shameful reality of the repressive, hyper-capitalist, and stagnant South Korea. And South Koreans themselves are starting to march, freeing themselves from the shackles of the age-old shame game, to protest lax safety regulations and enforcement as evinced by the Sewol disaster, chaebol out of control, and a state that claims to care but seemingly has no interest in caring for the people, not because they are ashamed, but because they are fed up.

What is remarkable about the so-called democratic, capitalist South Korea is the incredible focus on shaming and avoiding shame, when things for which one ought to be ashamed are on display, quite uninhibitedly, in every single aspect of society. Obscene wealth. Unfettered materialism. Extreme misery of the weakest and most vulnerable. Until now, the reputation of the self-made South Korea has obscured that larger truth of what this much vaunted ‘development’ has trampled in order to make itself. That is truly shameful.

This essay was written jointly by Mari Lias, a development expert with years of experience observing South Korea’s national brand management in South Asia, and Se-Woong Koo, editor-in-chief of Korea Exposé.

Cover photo:  Jun Michael Park

Correction: This article has been edited to reflect the fact that it incorrectly stated the maximum fines for violating South Korea’s criminal defamation law. They are 10 million KRW for spreading falsehood, and 5 million KRW for ‘truthful defamation’. We apologise for the error.




  1. “This essay was jointly written by Mari Lias, a development expert
    with years of experience observing South Korea’s national brand
    management in South Asia, and Se-Woong Koo, editor-in-chief of Korea

    Just out of curiosity are either one of your literate? Or capable of looking up the actual law and reading it? The fine publicly alleging false facts is a maximum of 10 million won, publicly alleging true facts which serve no public interest is a maximum of 5 million. There are not even remotely in the neighbourhood of the figures you cite in this article. It’s Article 307 of the criminal code in case you need some guidance in looking it up.

    It’s funny that the article that you link to properly lists these numbers. What is it with Expats who think they are “journalists” and can’t even do things like basic math or reading?

    • What is it with people who hit the reply button only to inform that the only thing they’ve taken out of this much larger piece of written work is a quip about numbers?? Really? Beyond that small quip there’s actual content in here. In a way your reply is evidence to the author’s thoughts about shame. You do one small thing wrong – it blows up into a wag-the-finger of shame / discredit everything else admirable you have done type of reaction.

      • It shows shoddy work and disrespect for the reader. The numbers are available in the actual article they linked to. Any content is tainted by that kind of mistake. When you get something that is essentially spoon fed to you so spectacularly wrong how can anything else that’s been written there be respected or trusted?

      • “When you get something that is essentially spoon fed to you so spectacularly wrong how can anything else that’s been written there be respected or trusted?” Amazingly, the only other person I’ve heard this from is a Korean. It’s a logical fallacy, by the way, sort of a reverse appeal to authority. A regular appeal to authority would be of the form, “Person A is right about X, so person A must be right about Y”, regardless of whether or not X and Y have anything to do with one another and regardless of whether or not person A is at all qualified to talk about thing Y. What you’ve done is, “Person A is wrong about thing X, so person A must be wrong about all other things”, which seems to me like a worse fallacy than the original because it’s not “wrong about thing Y”, it’s “wrong about all things”. You don’t even debate the validity of the rest of their essay; you just say “this was wrong”. I don’t know whether or not you’re Korean, but you need to learn basic reasoning and logic. You can’t think critically without it.

      • unfortunately it’s hardly a single error. I pointed out three errors in my post, someone else pointed out another one in theirs (millions of old people collecting card board), this is a pile of shit, try and apologize for it all you want, it’s garbage.

      • I counted two of your facts as one, because they’re centered around a single thing, the content of the criminal defamation laws, and they’re of a single kind, about the quantity of money that must be paid. And the issue of “truthful defamation” that you mention kind of gets to the heart of what the essay is about. “Truthful defamation” is at a minimum oxymoronic because generally, if something that’s being said about a person is true, it either isn’t actually bad and therefore isn’t defamation, or it is and it ought to be known about so that a person’s reputation actually reflects who they are, as opposed to how they wish to be seen. If some corrupt and unscrupulous Koreans wish not to be defamed in any way, why don’t they start by not doing things worth being defamed for?
        As to the trash-collecting old people figure, it comes from this: “According to a Seoul-based NGO Resource Recycling Alliance, there are some 1.75 million South Koreans, or 3.5% of the total population, who make a living this way”. So sure, in the strictest sense of millions meaning multiple millions, no it’s not right, but it’s closer to 2 million than one, and way more than it should be in a country as wealthy as South Korea.
        You seem to be missing that you’ve nit-picked facts which are either arguably correct or negligibly incorrect, while leaving all the other content of this essay alone. Given that those two niggles don’t underpin the entirety of the argument presented here, you’re either avoiding everything else said or seriously misunderstand what it takes to say something meaningful (e.g. that logical fallacy I mentioned earlier).

      • That’s an american legal definition. The actual English definition of the word defamation includes unjust attacks, true or otherwise. So no, it’s not oxymoronic at all. You’re citing, as support for this, the same people who can’t tell the difference between $4500 and $18000. Of course they’re so trustworthy that you can expect them to report that number accurately. 3.5% of the population doesn’t say they are only elderly, could be plenty of people who are not elderly running recycling businesses. That statistics doesn’t in fact say a single thing about how many old people are out collecting cardboard, and if it was really that many, don’t you think the streets would be absolutely flooded with them? Doesn’t pass the smell test. Given that Seoul is half the population one would expect the Seoul area to have half the old people collecting cardboard. Do you really think there are 850,000 old people on the streets of seoul collecting cardboard? Give your head a shake. That figure is complete and utter bullshit. At least you’ve now proven that this site has a history of running bullshit.

      • This is where I have to disagree. Even if the numbers are available and don’t match those given in the article – if you have a single worth’s thought to the issue, you would be able to read the content, give a thought on it IN ADDDITION to pointing out any fallacy the article gave. You didn’t have any thoughts to the issue. You were merely looking for something to criticize.

      • I didn’t need to look for it, there are several points in the article just screaming to be criticized because they are so absurd. As Lukas has been so kind to point out, this site has a history of basically just talking out of their ass, so beyond pointing that out, there isn’t anything here worth commenting on. Let’s also point out the fact that this was posted 5 days ago. I pointed out the errors 4 days ago, and they don’t even have the good sense to change it? As I said, disrespect for the reader. You get what you give.

  2. Terrible article! That’s right! Leave them alone! Like Smithington said, you guys are no good at numbers or reading like real Koreans! How can you expose face saving law as a bad thing? In a country like Korea, a lot of faces need
    saving, literally and figuratively. That’s why we are #1 in the world for plastic surgery. Carpets don’t match drapes, but who cares, they all look good – except their babies!
    The politicians need to protect their faces and continue North/South propaganda to maintain their jobs. Some chaebols need to get out of jail and rule like monarchy, sell trickle-down economy, and increase their wealth gap. Korea don’t need meritocracy and transparency like Singapore or New Zealand. A reputation and connection based society don’t need innovators and entrepreneurs in a competitive global economy, when a cram school and a paper from right schools will do. Let us be obsessed in exporting copied and dated pop-culture and technologies, until China and the third-world don’t want them anymore. Allow us the comfort of oppressive ideology passed down from Confucius society via modern religious/business men.
    Please, let sleeping dog lie. For us Koreans, in the words of Col. Nathan R. Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

    • O my god you’re so creepy. Here we have the Koreans getting desperately offended about people talking about how they obsessively tell themselves that Korea and Koreans have no problems, you’re absolutely superior, and of course the ridiculous mythology of the “Korean Wave”…which is utter nonsense.

      You just made the point of the whole article.

      Creeptastic Korea.

      • LMFAO!!! In case you didn’t get the memo, and without sounding too vulgar, please come back when you’ve pulled your head out of your ass, and look up a word “Sarcasm”. No, not in a Korean dictionary…. you won’t find it in there. While you are at it, grow a pair. No, not down there, I mean between your ears. LOL!

        NMG, seriously – what’s really creepy and scary is that us Koreans have very fragile inferior defensive national psyche formed by decades of colonization, authoritarian, and dictatorial rule by other nations – where any constructive criticism is taken as an insult, and any disagreement is
        considered as hostile fuel for a fight, rather than an opportunity for open discourse – which may lead to a progress (see examples below).

        Now what’s truly frightening in Korea is, any non-conforming political or judicial views are automatically labeled as subversive or Communism, and oppressed by the establishments (Blue House, Supreme Court, National Assembly, NIS, SPO, etc. etc.) while they all personally benefit from the perch of status quo, even the Liberals.

        There is nothing offensive or embarrassing about recognizing ones flaws and weaknesses in order to deconstruct and build a better system, policy, society, or nation – no matter where the criticisms come from. Indeed as a modern nation, perhaps it’s about time all of us Koreans grow a pair in the 21st century. And, I do mean down there – even if you are a woman! Then maybe we can all face the
        truth, and dare I say – rise up against establishments with true voice of the people.

        P.S. Btw NMG, to really blow your top off – it may be news to you, but there is no god. From the
        beginning, it’s all been fictionally made up by a few men to oppress and suppress women, children, and innocent masses. It’s your wild imagination sold to you by unskilled, unemployable, and
        untaxed businessmen/fraudsters, especially here in Korea – now one of our major
        exports, along with dyed, dried, and fixed-up teeny-boppers. Just saying…

      • Well, then I’m not talking about you. Yeah – maybe I missed your sarcasm. Apologies. You actually seem normal. But I’ve known so many people who lived in Korea come back with horrible experiences, including me… sorry. Had to vent.

      • Landlady, While you were typing responses like a stingy person hating someone who dislikes what tastes sweet to you but bitter to them, why do you sound like an old windbag nagging tenants for rent? If your going to take NGM to court at least you should have a solid defense that’s less emotionally entangled within your statements, which are rather just wasteful opinions about the article. basically you wrote a mouthful when it all translated to “don’t be blinded by what you read online, instead just do more research.” but you had to make it sound complicated and stuff NGM’s mouth with what he/she later spits out. Your opinions make sense when you use references as support , but in reality they are complete rants. The article is based on the authors lacking research and experience. Everyone does not have the same eyes so how can this article be rubbish? I just merely saw the authors perspective and I understand his perspective.( I know someone told you that there is always 2 sides to everything, so why are your statements one sided?)
        Lastly, if you go around saying God doesn’t exist first read the entire bible from start to finish before you open that mouth of yours that loves to utter opinionated garbage. (Aishh Dak Chu!) Saying God is made up, next thing you know your saying all the false idols that are man made are real , how laughable. No one can explain the world and universe itself until you read the bible from start to finish. If you dont read how else can you prove something is false. Thats’ like asking a true or false question without knowing squat about the topics being discussed. Can you even give an answer? NO ! obviously!.
        Lets end it here man I just said a mouthful because one sentence would let you want to vent and i dont feel like hearing your lifestory. So try to comprehend what I said if not then continue to live a life where you just wing it every time without thinking more before you have words jumping out your mouth.
        Oh and good rhyming by the way: That was so funny lmao! (see your joke below)

        “LMFAO!!! In case you didn’t get the memo, and without sounding too vulgar, please come back when you’ve pulled your head out of your ass, and look up a word “Sarcasm”. No, not in a Korean dictionary…. you won’t find it in there. While you are at it, grow a pair. No, not down there, I mean between your ears. LOL!

        you should take your own advice too. take it very well 🙂

    • You know, the truth is only subversive if you hide it. If Korea would simply deal with the problems it has, instead of trying to sweep them under the rug, they’d have much, much more respect from the “international community” and be better off generally (not that that doesn’t apply to all countries to some extent).

      • Lukas,

        You seem like a highly intelligent, insightful, and articulate man. Please refer to my response to NMG. I apologize in advance for any offensive remark.


  3. Millions of old people? So you’re saying at least one in 25 South Koreans is an old person collecting rubbish on the street? What rubbish.

  4. A controversial article, as any piece of writing touching on the concept and issue of shame will likely be. Notwithstanding the points others have brought up regarding falsities of some numbers used here, I do sense some truth in what the author wrote because Korea is undoubtedly a shame-based nation and culture. However, more examples instead of hyperbolic writing would definitely make a stronger case for the culture of shame. There is potential in this piece.

  5. I am not sure if I can agree with all the lines in this article. First off, the ‘nut case’ of Ms. Cho is not the best example of the Korean culture of shame unfairly punishing her. The general sentiment is the anger over her misbehavior based off of her status and power. Koreans are not ‘ashamed’ collectively by her, but rather angry at how arrogant and rampant these 2nd, 3rd generation chaebols can get. So as far as the nut incident goes, nobody cares about ‘national image’.

    I get that the defamation law goes at odds with the freedom of speech as well as other liberal democratic values, but each country and culture has their own rights to set up rules that befit their unique societies. Just because the U.S. and other non-Asian countries do not buy the concept of defamation legally punished does not mean such laws are unwarranted. If the majority of Koreans believe this is a justifiable thing, then so be it. Let the Korean citizens and their legislators deal with it, not you the expats.

    “instead of appropriate shame and solutions…only reaction we see is wounded pride”? How do you know that? How do you exactly assess what ‘we’ see? By the way, may I cordially ask who these ‘we’ are?

  6. any ordinary asian ppl..thailand, philipphine, chinese..even my high school mate most of them even look prettier and handsome compare to korean celebrities which have plastic surgery.. i swear.let alone ordinary korean people.

  7. Growing up in South Korea, this kind of mindless mentality and behavior prevailed. The Korean parents themselves cannot think outside the box and their kids learn this kind of thinking from them. A transfer of bad culture.
    The out side the box thinking has to start from their parents. and they are honestly to protective of their children. Children wont learn anything themselves unless they do something for themselves. There are 30 something year olds who have never worked a day in their life and only studied to become a stable government worker.
    Who can fix that ? people who see this already and task risk !

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