It's an oft-heard superlative – that conservative South Koreans remain the most committed Confucianists in East Asia. So much so it often sounds like a statement that is supposed to be interpreted as some sort of bad thing.
Yet the reality of the country's ingrained societal codes has made it perhaps one of the few places where elders still attract great respect. Few, many might argue, would oppose such an orderly set-up.
However, a couple of recent high-profile incidents suggest there might be a major social shift in the works.
In a recent case which grabbed national headlines, a youth traveling on a subway train launched an aggressive, foul-mouthed torrent of abuse at an elderly man when the latter asked him to refrain from crossing his legs so that his feet did not brush the older individual's trousers.
It sparked national outrage. Some called for the young man to be dealt with by authorities. Others tried to out his identity on the Internet.
A similar case earlier late last year involving a teenage girl and an older woman drew a similar level of public abhorrance. While some was directed at the youngster for what was described as her failure to show respect for her elders, others accused the older woman of obtusely demanding piety.
These cases, and others like them, have raised the question of whether South Korea's traditional values – which place respect for elders at the very center of society – are being eroded.
Indeed, statistics released this week appear to support such claims. Quoting the Seoul city government, a report carried by the government-backed Yonhap News Agency said mistreatment of senior citizens in the capital – where about 20 percent of the country's 48-million population resides – shot up by nearly a quarter over the last year.
Is the West to blame?
For Um Sun-hye, an editor at a Seoul-based culture magazine, the trend is rooted in ignorance – not the pressures of a rapidly changing society. "We know that in Western countries, it’s more informal and casual between the young and the old – they call each other names – and young people don’t hesitate to give their personal opinion to older people," she says. "But the young generation in Korea now misunderstands that it looks 'cool' to go against social rules and that way they become 'westernized,' or being liberal from conventional custom."
Yang Myoung-hwa, a woman about to enter her retirement years who spent the past 34 years dividing her time between her homeland and the United States, says she was disgusted by the youth's actions when she saw footage of the latest incident on the Internet.
"Most of our old generation cannot accept that kind of rude and impolite attitude of the younger generation against old generations," she says, indicating that any such social change would likely come with a fight from the older generation.
And while Ms. Yang accepts that changes to time-honored traditions that saw elders given reverential respect without condition has been a good thing, she agrees with the sentiment that many young people may be misintepreting the parameters of today's de rigeur.
"In most Asian countries, people have learned that we must respect and honor the old whtaever they do without any conditions, but it has changed rapidly – and positively," she says. But, adds Yang, "I think some people do not understand Western culture, its individualism and freedom of expression correctly."