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FOCUS March 1998 Volume 11

Cultural Values and Human Rights : the Korean Perspective

Byung-Sun Oh - Sogang University, Seoul

(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.)

Confucian Tradition and Familism-directed Culture

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.

Introduction of Christianity and Western Value System

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.

Syncretic New Confucian Ethics as a Contemporary Social Morality

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.

Cultural Values and Human Rights

  1. Familism-entailed Preference for Sons

    Traditionally the principles of Confucian ideology served as the primary influence on the behavior and customs of the Korean family. The male-oriented teachings of Confucianism stress the patriarchal role of men, the importance of family lineage, and the significance of paying homage to ancestors. As such, men predominate over women and sons are preferred over daughters.
    Today the importance of sons has diminished, largely due to increasing numbers of people who are educated, experienced in cultural exchanges, and aware of different values. However, Koreans still generally prefer sons over daughters. When a mother gives birth to a son, she feels relief, pride, and joy because she believes that she has fulfilled one of her fundamental duties to her parents-in-law. When a daughter is born, the mother usually feels disappointed and consoles herself with the thought that her daughter can be helpful to her. Nevertheless, many mothers hope for sons the next time, or continue to give birth until they bear sons.

  2. Sex Discrimination in the Labor Market

    During the three decades of a rapid economic growth coupled with industrialization since 1960s, the transition from an agrarian society to an industrialized one cannot but rely on the cheap wages and the high productivity of laborers. In the process of industrialization, the masses of people who migrated out of rural areas became the urban poor, forming a large industrial reserve force. These people have been compelled to sacrifice themselves for the sake of national economic development. The trade union rights and the right to strike have been held in check by harsh labor laws and other laws. At times, labor movements have been denounced by the government as pro-communist activities or as acts sympathetic to North Korea. The government's dependence on police power in suppressing the exercise of rights by laborers and low income urban people is one of the important causes of human rights infringements in South Korea.

  3. The Rule of Politics Over the Rule of Law

    Another impeding factor or difficulty in implementing the international covenants on human rights and protecting human rights is the weakness of the normative power of the Constitution. In theory, the Constitution is the supreme law of the state and sets the highest standard for the merit and validity of government measures and laws. However, since its first proclamation in 1948, the Constitution has been unable to preserve its dignity as the supreme law. As has been amended nine times so far, all of these amendments were centered on the questions of the method of electing the President, the lengths of the terms, and the structure of the state power. All the constitutional amendments, except for those of 1960 and the present Constitution in 1987, were aimed at extending the term of office of the incumbent president or at providing ex post facto justifications of the military coup d'etat (1961 and 1980). Because of this history, the Constitution has come to be regarded as something that can be changed for the maintenance of power of the president or ruling party.

Human Rights and Human Dignity

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.

Current Efforts to Enhance the Protection of Human Rights

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.

  1. Improving the Status and Legal Rights of Women

    Legal status reflects political, economic, and social status. Since the 1970s and 1980s, Korean women have come to develop an increased understanding of women's legal rights. As a result, the revised Family Law was passed in 1989 and was hailed as the most outstanding victory of women's political groups. Women also participated actively in the enactment of the Equal Employment Law, and drafted the Mother-Child Care Law and the Prevention of Prostitution Act.
    The Family Law reflects tradition and custom as it deals with marriage and family life. First, the revised law amended the head of the family inheritance and the succession system, thus weakening the patriarchal system to some extent. But the system of the head of the family still remains. Second, it has broadened the scope of relatives, including the mother's and wife's relatives along with those of the father and husband. Third, the earlier provision permitting a husband to register a child born out of wedlock without the consent of his wife was abolished. Fourth, a new provision was included permitting equal parental authority over the children: the old law recognized the father's authority only. Fifth, the law concerning marital age has been strengthened in favor of the wife. Sixth, in the case of divorce, the couple must discuss who has the responsibility of rearing the children. Besides, a property division claim has been inaugurated in case of divorce and if a couple does not reach an agreement, the case is brought to the Family Court. Sixth, men and women have been given equal rights to inheritance. Thus it can be said that the present Family Law enhanced women's rights.

  2. Restoring Just Constitutional Order by Trying State Criminals

    Perhaps the most crucial and thorny agenda in the reform policy under the present government has been the issue of trying state criminals and restoring just constitutional order. Like a number of other governments, the current civilian government, launched in 1993, confronted the issue of bringing military violators of the Constitution and human rights to trial. Human rights organizations and progressive political sectors urged the incumbent government to set up trials for ex-presidents and generals and their one-time crony national assembly members. The subsequent prosecution of former Presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo however was criticized on one ground. While the order of the President for the Kwangju probe is proper it should be carried out by independent special prosecutors not one whose job depends on the President. Nonetheless indictment proceeded without much resistance and two ex-presidents, Chun and Roh, later faced court proceedings and ultimately convicted.

Strengthening Human Rights Policy and Educational Effort

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)