(This article is a short version of the research paper from South Korea included in the book "Human Rights in Asian Cultures - Continuity and Change", 1997 published by HURIGHTS OSAKA. - Editor's note.)
Korean culture in general may be described as a part of East Asian culture, centered on Chinese Confucian tradition and characterized by extraordinary homogeneity. All Koreans speak one language, use a unique and indigenously developed alphabet 'hangul', and belong to the same racial stock - part of the Altaic family of races. Most young Koreans receive a virtually identical education from primary school to high school using similar textbooks and pedagogy.
Moreover, the relatively small size of Korean territory means that the population is subject to nearly the same climate and natural environment. Nearly all parts of the country lie within the distance of a half-day or at most one-day round trip. Thus Korean people can easily maintain close relationships with their relatives and friends. These factors all help to integrate the Korean people into a tight and homogeneous cultural and social system.
Due to the family-centered Confucian social ethics but also other traditional cultural legacy such as folkloristic Shamanism which stresses emotion and affections in interpersonal relations, Koreans usually place much value on family and family-related matters in their lives. This kind of attitude and social behavior may be called 'familism'-directed culture.
Another important aspect of Korean culture can be understood through the religion of Korean people. The majority of Koreans regard themselves as believers in one or more religion, belonging to some kind of major religious bodies in the world. Though Korean culture was greatly influenced over two thousand years by Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and folkloristic Shamanism, Christianity has played an extraordinary role in Korea's modernization. Korea now has by far the highest proportion of Christians - nearly half of all professed religious believers - among the traditionally Confucian and Buddhist cultures of East Asia. According to the recent population and housing census, the proportion of Christians in the total population of Korea was 24.3 per cent (including 4.8 per cent Catholics) in 1991. Since the first resident Christian missionary, the American medical doctor Horace N. Allen entered Korea in 1884, it was considered true that Christianity was a particularly important benefactor to Korea in that it presented Koreans with a new, that is Western, civilization. The contribution of Christianity to Korea may be summarized into the following several points: introduction of Western civilization, rearmament of a decaying morality, promotion and popularization of education, enhancement of the social status of women, rectification of the early marriage system, popularization of the Korean alphabet and vernacular literature, modernization of traditional values and philosophy, and stimulation of individualism.
Many Koreans have become concerned that acceptance of Christianity and Western way of thinking and living may lead to a loss of national identity unless combined with traditional ethical and cultural values. Many Koreans are worried that the values, morality, and ethics of modern-day Korea lag far behind the level of material progress.
The new Confucian ethics places great emphasis on education and personal and familial relations. It also stresses personal cultivation, self-improvement, and spiritual and psychological discipline of the self. This is why education has become one of the most important socioeconomic issues in Korea.
The new Confucian ethics also stresses a harmonious personal relationship among individuals and puts great importance on harmony, cooperation, consensus, and social solidarity among members of an organization. This contrasts with the Western emphasis on competition among the members of an organization and maybe the chief factor determining the distinctive characteristics of organizational dynamics in Korea and other East Asian countries.
The idea of human rights inhering in each person as a human being was not part of pre-modern Korean legal culture; but one had duties according to one's place in the sociopolitical hierarchy, and within that context one's sense of duty might well carry with it, even in relations with superiors, a modest expectation that the other recognized a duty to reciprocate, if not in equal kind, at least with humane condescension. Thus within the Confucian hierarchy of carefully differentiated stations in society, there existed to some degree a 'reciprocal-duty consciousness' which in effect, and in perspective, functioned as a type of qualified individual-rights consciousness. Irresponsibility was not an accepted principle of government or social rule, however often manifested by some elites. However, the notion of human rights established under government policy and formal law, with protective institutions, as developed in parts of the West, was new and alien when Korea was forced to open its ports for intercourse with Japan and the West.
It may be conducive to describe some ideas on human rights proclaimed on such events as Tonghak (Eastern Learning) Movement of the 1890s and Equalization Movement of the 1920s to understand the Koreans' early efforts in realizing equality of people and human dignity.
Tonghak developed an institutional hierarchy throughout the south, spread rapidly among the rural poor, and by 1894, when it launched a full-scale rebellion, the followers numbered around 400,000. Though its doctrines contained a new belief in social equality and had some Christian elements, it was not opposed to Confucianism but rather sought to revitalize the five relationships in Confucian ethics and loyalty to the monarch. It was from the beginning opposed to foreign influence.
Later in the 1920s, the Statement of Purposes of the Equalization Movement (Hyongpyong) launched by the butcher (paeckchong) group establishing a society to improve the social position of the paeckchong, declared among many things the following points: 1) Equality and fairness are [should be] the basis of society; kindness is [should be] a basic attribute of human nature. 2) The basic purpose of our society is to smash down social ranks, do away with contemptuous labels, and encourage education so that we too may truly have standing as persons.
Based upon past diverse experiences, such as Tonghak Movement, Equalization Movement, Independence Movement and so on, though they have been suppressed by foreign and domestic political powers even after liberation from Japanese rule, the Koreans have developed a strong desire to protect human rights. This has been expressed by such political upheavals as the student revolution of 1960 and the democratization movement of 1989.
Nowadays, the harmonious integration of the values stressing cooperation and competition among members of an organization appears increasingly to be crucial for Korean society's continuous development. The communal spirit-oriented new Confucian ethics, which stresses duty-consciousness, contrasts with the individual-oriented Protestant ethics, which emphasizes right-consciousness. For many Confucian-value-oriented Koreans, the development of the concept of basic human rights, especially in connection with private property, private interest, and privacy of an individual, presents a challenge. This is in part because the new Confucian ethics stresses one's duty to a larger entity over individualism.
The most important impeding factor and difficulty in the implementation of the international human rights covenants in South Korea is the division of the country. In the case of South Korea, the bitter experience of the Korean War (1950-1953) has left a legacy of fear, distrust and hostility in the minds of the people against communism and the North. Anti-communist and anti-North Korea ideology has been used to justify a series of military coup d'etat and authoritarian regimes. In the name of 'national security', oppressive laws which curtail or violate human rights have been enacted and any speech or activity critical of the government has been punished as a criminal act due to its beneficial effect on North Korea.
From 1996, the new movement for improving the quality of life and human rights took varied forms. Besides trying state criminals and reestablishing constitutional order aright several are notable.
First, a new movement for empowering women was launched. Amidst the environment of reconstruction, so far the issue of gender roles in the context of social equality has remained safely shielded behind economic or political debates. Clearly, people in contemporary Korea are experiencing changes in attitude and perceptions of gender roles. Quite recently the government established a new personnel recruitment policy by introducing a quota system for women who apply for government posts.
Secondly, in 1995 there appeared a second national association of trade unions which is prohibited from the government's viewpoint. However, the establishment of this de facto rival national association of trade unions seems to open a new era of allowing multiple trade unions.
Thirdly, a new ruling on the National Security Law was rendered recently in a district court which interpreted the scope of the law in a narrow and negative way. The accused was indicted on a charge of benefiting and advocating for North Korea by communicating with North Korean people and publishing a material on socialist system. The court rejected the charge on the ground that it could not find any criminal intent on the accused in his simple activity of communicating with North Koreans and publishing a pro-North Korea book.
Though there are plenty of norms and principles on human rights and democracy and hopeful signs of development, still lacking is their effective implementation through the establishment of appropriate mechanisms for the protection of human rights. Greater efforts will be needed in monitoring and correcting human rights infringements on the part of human rights advocates and private civil rights organizations.
(References omitted due to space limitation)