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.

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.

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