SOUTH KOREA A CONFLICT OF FATHERS AND SONS
Valley of the Swallows, South Korea
"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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.