SOUTH KOREA A CONFLICT OF FATHERS AND SONS

By , Richard Critchfield, a free-lance reporter, is the author of the forthcoming "Villages."

"If you young people make more noise," the anxious farmer tells his son, "another tragedy will come. This is not good for us." The son, home from his university for a few days to help with the annual rice transplanting, bows his head in filial respect. But his mind is full of stirring all-night rallies and torch-lit "marches for democracy," burning effigies and black-clad riot police with tear gas and Darth Vader masks.

He argues that the student demands to end martial law and return to full democracy are justified, that the "Yushin remnants" left in power since President Park Chung Hee's assassination last October must go. (President Park's "Yushin Constitution" was forced on South Korea in 1972. It concentrated all power in President Park.)

The son admits to the military menace to the north, admits that the old, ailing, and unpredictable North Korean leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung, is building up his armed forces of 710,000 men and digging tanksize tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone just 28 miles from Seoul. "My classmates and I," the youth tells his father, "have vowed to be the first to sacrifice ourselves if North Korea attacks."

Recommended: North Korea abandons armistice: 4 key questions answered

Exasperated, the father explodes. "Have I not tied my empty belt and boldly given money to send you to the university? I'm literate. I have a classical education. But I'm for Yushin and I'm for the late President Park. That's highly important."

Such family arguments as this, witnessed recently in the village of Achim, 50 miles southeast of Seoul, suggest that South Korea's labor and student uprisings go much deeper than politics or even a generational clash. At issue may be the country's Confucian cultural heritage, which still decides, possibly more than anywhere else in East Asia, how peasants out in 36,000 South Korean villages think and act.

A crucial fact about South Korea is that up until very recent times its people were never urbanized. As late as 1960, farm households formed two-thirds of the Korean total. As South Korea has very quickly emerged as a modern industrial state -- making the world's fastest economic growth in 1973-78 -- this has dropped to one-third.

This means the Korean mind, especially for people over 30 or 40, is still fundamentally rural, shaped by ethical-moral standards set down by Confucius in the sixth century BC and even older shamanistic tribal beliefs. (In Achim, where this reporter recently spent several weeks, sorceresses are still paid to protect families from evil spirits, a practice already old in Korea 3,000 years ago.)

As South Korea began its economic miracle, growing an average of 10 to 12 percent a year during the 1960s and '70s, young people left the villages in droves. Today only 29 percent of 38 million South Koreans are still rural; agriculture represents only 23 percent of gross national product, compared with 45 percent in 1964. Workers employed in farming -- 45 percent of them women -- have fallen to less than 40 percent of the labor force. Yet average landholdings of 2.2 acres have declined only slightly, suggesting that most of the young people who populate Seoul (8 million) or the other fast-growing cities keep close ties with their native villages. Grandfathers, who used to retire at 60 to stroll about in white pajamas and black horsehair hats, now do much of the farming.

It would be hard to exaggerate the influence of Confucianist thought in these villages. From the adage that "filial piety is the basis of all conduct" to notions of hierarchy and harmony and communal obligations, Confucianism rules almost every aspect of daily village life, including the subordination of son to father, younger brother to older brother, wife to husband and subject to state. One finds the late President Park, who ruled for 18 years in a Confucian fashion , much respected. Heavy-handed repression did, of course, exist under the Park regime, but it is notable that most Korean dissidents have been urban, Christian , or otherwise Westernized intellectuals; I find none among villagers.

For good reason, South Korea's villages practiced subsistence agriculture at the end of the war in 1953; I spent a year near Pusan and Taegu as a soldier, and it seemed then that there was no compelling reason the villagers should not have stayed poor and been content with their age-old ways forever. But change was already there, should have been evident, and was peculiarly Confucian: Village family spending was concentrated on education. By the late 1960s South Korea had the people equipped to build its industry, and the boom followed.

Agricultural development lagged, although 1949-53 land reform created reasonably equitable village land ownership and incomes. And an American-sponsored cooperative and credit system established a way to get money into the hands of the villagers. What was missing was the technology, which came in the 1970s with South Korea's successful adoption of new dwarf, high-yield rice varieties. Suddenly average yields rose 50 percent and incomes, 30 percent; in 1977 South Korea broke the world's record for average yield per hectare with 4.9 tons of milled rice.

Its farm science establishment, built around a sizable core of American-educated PhDs, now invites comparison with Japan's. This technology, plus a doubling of the subsidized rice price in the 1970s and rapid expansion of transportation, storage, and the urban market, made all the difference.

Between 1970 and 1980 average village family incomes rose from about $800 to just under $3,000. Daily field wages of $8 to $10, plus meals and incidentals, are bettern than the $6.20 average daily wage for unskilled factory workers, though urban family incomes of $4,000 to $5,000 tend to be higher (South Korea's GNP per head is now just under $1,500). Today everybody gets plenty to eat, even in what used to be the preharvest hungry season.

All village children go to primary school, 90 percent go on to high school, and a few, if they pass the examinations, join those trouble- some students in 74 colleges and universities. Almost every village family has a TV set, plus a radio-cassette player. Every village is electrified; every villager is literate; no place in the country is more than a day's bus or train journey away.

Almost every farmer has a cow or an ox, but nearly 200,000 power tillers, used to haul, plow, harrow, or harvest in one-fourth the time, have spread to the villages (an average of more than five per village). Family-owned irrigation pumps have universally replaced traditional water wheels. Rice seedlings and vegetables are now grown in cold- resistant, Japanese-style vinyl greenhouses. This spring the government's extension service was giving a week's free training to both men and women on how to operate newly introduced Japanese power rice transplanters.

Credit also goes to South Korea's Saemaul (New Community) movement, launched by President Park in 1970. Villagers were exhorted with a Confucian-style slogan, "Self-help, cooperation, and diligence," to build roads, wells, and bridges and, most spectacularly, to replace their old thatched roofs with brightly painted tile or metal ones, which has completely changed the appearance of the rural countryside.

At first there was some coercion from overzealous local officials; laggards might come back to find their thatch gone and their home open to the sky. In recent years the Saemaul movement has encouraged small factories to relocate in the countryside; villagers now make 20 percent of their incomes from nonfarming jobs. It is now trying to establish "self-managing villages," with their own day-care centers, doctors, and agricultural extension workers.

Today the Saemaul movement is generally praised -- even by the student dissidents -- for showing that once villagers get capital, technology, and access to markets, a government drive to mobilize local officials can do wonders.

Jae-Chang Lee, the national director of the Saemaul movement, attributes South Korea's success in transforming its villages partly to Confucianism and "the cohesion it brings to our way and view of life."

"Korean ethics," he told me in an interview, "are according to Confucian ideals of virtue."

Confucianism, which become the official ideology of China two centuries before the birth of Jesus, is essentially a philosophic justification of government by a benevolent bureaucracy under a virtuous ruler. As Koreans explain it, virtue ensures harmony between man and nature and ensures obedience within a stratified society. As put by one of the Confucian classics, which are still sold widely in Korea (though not, one finds, in Hong Kong or Taiwan):

"Possessing virtue will give the ruler the people. Possessing the people will give him the territory. Possessing the territory will give him its wealth. Possessing the wealth, he will have the resources for expenditure. Virtue is the root, wealth is the result."

When Korean students denounce the "Yushin system" inherited from President Park, they are referring to Neo-Confucianism, a reaction against "foreign" Buddhism (which came from India) that reached its zenith under China's Sung Dynasty in the 12th century, when its greatest protagonist was Chu Hsi. The Neo-Confucians reaffirmed the importance of Confucian virtues and codified the idea that the state and family were mirror images, the leader's benevolent rule reciprocated by the obedience of his subjects, in the same way that father ruled son.

The students claim that General Park merely used this Yushin ideology to mask dictatorial powers. So much attention has been paid to political repression in South Korea that I was surprised to find in Achim village general satisfaction with the Park regime for bringing about vastly improved living standards and achieving it in the Korean Confucian way of doing things.

In a book published shortly before his death, Mr. Park spelled out the connection between the close-knit, authoritarian Confucian family and South Korea's rapid development:

"Just as a home is a small collective body, so the state is a larger community. . . . One who does not maintain a wholesome family order cannot be expected to show strong devotion to his state. . . . A society that puts the national interest above the interests of the individual develops faster than one that does not."

Most villagers in Achim seem to agree. They have accepted a few such necessary antitraditional values as birth control and women doing more farm work. Young men and women can sit together (Confucius separated them after age 7). And a butcher's son can aspire to college. Yet the village yangban,m or old landlord-official class, which was brought down to average size by land reform, still sacrifices to educate its children; former commoners are more likely to invest in farm machinery. The old ways persist, above all the belief that the ultimate guarantee of harmony is the justness of the father, or the state.

The students can argue, as some do, that Confucius gave the people a right, indeed an obligation, to rebel against a tyrant who had "lost the mandate of heaven." But the kind of Westernized democracy they want, with its freedom of individual choice, goes against their fathers' deeply ingrained beliefs in the subordination of the individual.

The student uprising of 1960 that brought down President Syngman Rhee, which was also inspired by ideas of Western individualism, quickly gave way within a year to a military dictatorship.

Korea's Yi Dynasty, a classical Confucian state, lasted from 1382 to 1910. The ways and views of life it left behind are still very much alive in South Korea's villages.If one had to guess how things will go, I'd bet on the fathers, not the sons.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...