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The Role of Endogenous Culture in Socio-Economic Development of Korea

Sang-Bok Han

As Yogesh Atal (1980:1) pointed out fifteen years ago, development strategists and social scientists of the developing world have been finding fault with the Western paradigm of development and have been sloganizing the need for endogenous development. In defining the concept of endogenous development Alechina (1982:19-21), Loubser (1982:115-62) and the Korean Social Science Research Council (1984:33-5, 145-9) indicated the goals of development based on the basic continuity of the people’s cultural traditions and the formation of endogenous innovative groups as the basic elements or components to be included in it.

When I discuss Korean culture or Korean endogenous culture in this paper, it does not imply only the unique and specific culture generated in Korea but includes also the exogenous foreign culture in its origin if it were indigenized and Koreanized by the Korean people in the course of acculturation. In this paper I will try to examine the traditional sources of Korean culture, and then to present three empirical cases of Korean socio-economic development based on endogenous culture: (a) biogas innovation as a simple appropriate technological development in rural Korea; (b) saemaul undong (New Community Movement); and (c) the Korean experience of economic development.

Traditional sources of Korean culture

Confucianism must be mentioned as one of the most important traditional sources of Korean culture and personality. The predominant ideology of the traditional society used to be what is known as the Neo-Confucianism of Ch’eng Yi and specially Chu Hsi (Kim 1988:202-3). As adopted and practised in Korea, it had become a very rigid ideology governing statecraft, principles of social organization and human relations, and behavioural norms on the one hand, and a very abstract system of metaphysical ideas on the other. Its application, however, was largely confined to the yangban ruling literary class except to exert harsh authoritarian control over the sangmin peasant commoner class and to justify the legitimacy of such control.

If Confucianism was the predominant and almost sole ideology of the yangban ruling elite, a mixture of three sets of religious beliefs and practices governed the life of the sangmin peasant class in traditional society. The oldest indigenous belief system was Shamanism, the next prevalent one was Buddhism, and the third was Taoism, not as a folk religion but as a system of philosophy. These three played the role of subordinating the masses to the authoritarian rule of aristocratic governance, while providing an outlet for the commoners to release the tensions and grievances caused by severe and rigid imposition of order and discipline, exploitation and repression on the part of the ruling class. Buddhism was the dominant and even state religion for almost a thousand years before the Choson dynasty. Shamanism and, to some extent, Taoism, through their rituals, helped maintain community identity and peace of mind for the suppressed peasant commoners.

From this cultural, ideological and religious backgrounds we may draw some items denoting the personality traits of the Korean people, including their typical behavioural orientations, principles of social organization, world-views, and other basic values. Authoritarianism, placing strong emphasis on hierarchical relationships and order in terms of parent-child, elder-youth, male-female, superior-subordinate status positions, and so forth, is a typical behavioural orientation of the Koreans. The traditional legacy of collectivism (the group over individual), connectionism (the tendency to build one’s social network on the basis of certain particularistic relationships), and personalism (emphasizing close personalties) are the major traditional principles of Korean social organization. Secularism, supremacy of worldly accomplishments, and blessings in this world form the prevalent world-view. Irrational tendencies, formalistic ritualism, strong aspiration for education, and conformity to group norms and sanctions are the basic traditional values in Korean culture.

Whereas the authoritarian and formalistic elements presented above must have their origin mostly in the Koreanized Neo-Confucianism, the non-rational and humanistic parts may have emanated from Shamanism, Taoism and Buddhism. One very significant element common to all four religions is their secularism. No religion including Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, has escaped this secular tendency in Korean life. While Protestant denominations have contributed somewhat to the diminution of authoritarianism by bringing in democratic church organization and management, Catholicism does not seem to have ameliorated the authoritarian tendency in Korean culture and personality.

Japanese colonialism in a way reinforced the strong authoritarian mentalities and principles through its own militaristic Confucian statism. This was done by means of education, indoctrination and a whole variety of everyday practices. Secularism was also encouraged not only by the introduction of modern culture from the West but also by the very nature of Japanese culture itself. Even though exposure to modern science and capitalistic economic institutions through the modern educational system and economic policies of the colonial authorities may have modernized and somehow ‘rationalized’ the thought patterns and ways of life of the Korean people, this was not sufficient to change the tenacious emotional and personalistic inclinations. Rather, under the extremely distorted circumstances of colonial rule, such tendencies may have been reinforced. To release tensions and stress the Koreans sought comfort in more sorcerous Buddhism, Taoism, or even very fundamentalist Christianity, let alone indigenous Shamanism.

It is true that liberation from Japanese colonial rule and occupation by U.S. forces brought in many cultural elements and traits that may represent the exact opposite of the traditional characteristics enumerated earlier, and which are probably epitomized in Western democratic, rational, scientific, industrial values and model personality stereotypes appropriate to them. Such influences from the West have continued and increased over the years, particularly during the Korean War in which a large number of international armed forces participated, and during the rehabilitation efforts in its aftermath. Nevertheless, the basic traditional elements have lingered on, though perhaps a bit weakened and subdued. Korean society is organized basically on the principle of personalistic interpersonal relations, the intricate network of connections of a non-universalistic tint, quite individualized yet still very collectivistic in orientation and authoritarian-hierarchical in organization, putting on the ritualistic facade for face-saving, and strongly status and mobility oriented and meritocratic. The major religions have had little to do with rationalization of the people and society.

In spite of all this, Korea has made outstanding progress in the economic realm, creating an interesting case of an industrial capitalist society still compounded by all sorts of traditional traits which in general are considered inimical or at most not terribly conducive to such a development. We take it to be our task to unravel the distinctive features of Korea’s development from the twisted point of departure.

The biogas innovation as a simple appropriate technological development

Biogas as an alternative energy source has been experimented with and promoted for Korean rural development since 1972. The Korean government has considered biogas from cowdung and its dissemination as an important part of saemaul undong to improve villagers’ life-styles as well as to find a replacement for traditional energy sources including wood and grass.

According to an anthropologist’s case study (Chun 1984), there were some endogenous innovative ideas for biogas development generated by the village on Cheju island. After using biogas for four months, one family had to restock cowdung as raw material for producing it. At that time they had a shortage of cow dung from their own cattle barn, so they collected horse dung from the hills and mountains to replace cowdung for filling the tank. Traditionally this area raised horses, and villagers used dried horse dung as their main source of fuel. The biogas from this restocking lasted a record time — up to 214 days — because of the use of horse dung. Because of this incident, the local office of the ORD is now experimenting with the use of horse dung as the main source of biogas raw material. Some villagers and officials like to think that horse dung needs more time to dissolve than cowdung because it contains more celluloid, which is a major component of vegetables and grass.

One family uses waste from the pigsty instead of cowdung as raw material to make biogas. The head of the household installed the tank beside the pigsty. There is another pigsty which is also a human toilet. The farmer gathers wastes from the first pigsty and puts them in the toilet mixed with straw and grass. Then the pig which lives under the toilet treads on the dung and agricultural wastes and finally the whole waste turns into good raw material, ready for being put into the tank of the biogas plant. This innovative idea is an especially good one because every individual household in this area raises at least one or two pigs under its toilet. The wastes from the pigsty are used as agricultural fertilizer. The main food for the pig population is without doubt human excreta. In this process of using the human toilet and pigsty refuse as agricultural fertilizer, there exists the danger of parasites. It has been a well-known fact that most serious health problems for Cheju islanders are caused by the pork tapeworm. Experience of the Chinese with biogas in relation to the parasite is relevant to this case. According to a Chinese report, developing a biogas programme is also an effective way to deal with excreta and improve the hygiene and standard of health in the countryside. In the fermentation of excreta the number of flatworm and tapeworm eggs and larvae detected was reduced by 99 per cent after 70 days of fermenting (Crook 1979:18).

One small-scale blacksmith who is a resident of the village carefully looked at and thought about the use of biogas. He suggested the use of biogas for welding. According to him, one could use a fan to increase the temperature. If one installed a fan next to the main gas pipe to blow and provide additional oxygen, the fan would function as a good bellows.

Even though there are some difficult technological problems to be solved, it will be necessary in the future to diversify sources of energy in Korea. Petroleum should not be the only modern energy source. It is a centralized source that is easily vulnerable to economic and political changes. Even further, economically speaking, we have learned that ‘biogas plants can produce both fertilizers and energy cheaper than the conventional modern technology-based projects’ (Bhatt 1980:169). The government is developing programmes for decentralizing energy sources and finding alternative energy. Government and people are still working to improve the technology of biogas plants. In this process, it is very important to note that ‘in determining the viability of a biogas programme, it can be argued that the major factors in feasibility are more social than technical’ (Crook 1979:12). Biogas offers a good possibility for developing a ‘soft energy path’. After ideologically establishing the importance of recyclable resources for future energy use, it is possible to develop culturally acceptable and environmentally sound appropriate technology.

Saemaul undong (New Community Movement)

Saemaul undong is a comprehensive rural development programme that government and non-government organizations have implemented since 1970 to raise the standards of living. This programme adopted ‘diligence, self-help, and cooperation’ as its motto and stressed an extension of the idea of the community to encompass the entire nation. The programme was designed to increase farm household income by improving the agricultural infrastructure and seed varieties and by the application of new farming techniques. Also, it promoted cooperative production among households to increase farm output.

The ideology of the saemaul undong originated in traditional community life. Korean villages have a long tradition of self-government (cf. Han 1980). While major decisions were made informally in the past by a small group of influential men, meetings open to all males were also held periodically at which anyone could freely express his ideas. The result was a form of consensus politics controlled and directed by a small elite. Saemaul undong utilized this tradition, not to propagate general political skills but specifically in an attempt to involve the entire population emotionally as well as physically in selecting, planning and carrying out development projects.

Local officials encouraged farmers to hold frequent meetings with regard to the planning and carrying out of saemaul projects. In actual fact, however, the meetings were held mainly to mobilize enthusiastic participation in the movement and to organize the actual details of cooperative self-help projects.

The goals of saemaul undong, based on community needs and aspirations, are (a) to increase production from a limited area of arable land, (b) to earn more income, (c) to seek better security for community life, and (d) to look for opportunities in off-farm activities to improve social and financial status.

To implement these integrated goals of the movement, government, community leaders and people have striven according to overall rational plans and principles in the following ways:

1. The movement must be undertaken with integrated participation by the whole nation. Everyone in the villages should be able to participate. Plans and programmes have to be selected and exercised by the aggregate will of community members.

2. The saemaul spirit has to be instilled in the hearts of the people and practised in their everyday life.

3. All activities must be undertaken for the interest and benefit of the community and participants, and should be directly or indirectly linked to an increase in production and income.

4. The government must assist and support exemplary villages which have successful results so that the people may be well armed with the saemaul spirit leading to cooperative work. This will stimulate lagging villages.

5. Saemaul undong is a long-term plan with scientific approaches and methods. The plan must continue forever to bring about steady improvement in people’s lives.

The achievement of saemaul undong has been enormous. Numerous projects and programmes have been completed. The major ones include construction of physical facilities, environment, educational programmes and income increasing programmes. The dominant part of the saemaul projects consists of broadly defined rural infrastructure. The establishment of local community organizations and increased efficiency in the operation of the organizations such as community development committees and women’s clubs could also be perceived as rural infrastructure. Therefore it can be concluded that the main emphasis in saemaul undong was placed on the construction of rural infrastructure by the utilization of available resources.

The basic orientation of saemaul undong for rural development, however, has changed since 1980. After the regime of President Park was over, the new regime of President Chun changed the orientation of saemaul undong from a government-directed system to a non-governmental autonomous one (Shin 1984:490-504). Under the umbrella of the saemaul undong headquarters at the top, many organizations including saemaul leaders’ association and so forth were overlapped without systematic co-ordination. Thus saemaul undong was activated superficially without substantial effects until 1988, when the regime of President Chun ended. Now the saemaul undong Central Council (1990:98-120) makes an effort to revitalize and strengthen the movement of rural development.

According to a foreigner’s observation (Aqua 1981:412), there is hardly an aspect of a Korean farmer’s life that has not been marked by state intervention. Credit, education, ritual, transportation, and even recreation have all come to be regarded as objects subject to state control and supervision. Given the widespread intrusion of the state into virtually all aspects of rural life, it is noteworthy that saemaul undong seems to have had the effect of forecasting a positive image of the state among farmers, at least in the broadest terms. There were, to be sure, setbacks and failures, especially in the earliest stages of implementation, but over the course of ten years the steady and reliable supply of public goods and services to farmers helped to establish a new feeling of mutual support and even grudging respect among farmers and local officials.

The state’s successful penetration of traditional rural power structures and communal networks is particularly noteworthy in the modern setting. Intense pressure has been exerted on local administrators by the central government to ensure the achievement of saemaul undong goals. The result is the transition of the local bureaucracy from a status quo and control-oriented institution to an action-oriented instrument of developmental change (Brandt and Lee 1981:90-91). The work-load of local officials is now much heavier than before, and they are preoccupied with encouraging, cajoling or bullying farmers into greater cooperative self-help efforts, rather than, as in the past, enforcing bureaucratic regulations and promoting their own interests. Most local officials now spend half or more of their time away from their desks talking to villagers and guiding or inspecting projects.

Along with this change in function and perspective there has been a more subtle shift in officials’ attitudes towards the rural population. Since energetic participation by farmers is necessary for compliance with the insistent directives from the central government, their status relative to that of officials appears to have improved considerably. While there is no question of the superior authority and prestige of, for example, the sub-county head, his traditional attitude of arrogant condescension towards villagers is giving way, particularly among younger officials, to a relationship based more on interdependence and mutuality. Well-to-do farmers are now likely to have as much or more property and income as the higher ranking local officials. Also, their sons have usually graduated from high school, so that the great economic and educational gap that used to exist between farmers and officials has been significantly reduced.

The village meetings, it seems clear, do not merely rubber-stamp decisions previously made by the local government bureaucracy. In all the villages I visited, leaders insisted that the ideas for projects came from within the village — whether from the saemaul leader, the community development committee, or ordinary residents. These claims should be viewed cautiously, for administrators are the source of broad guidelines. But the villagers themselves must agree to particular projects and fill the myriad relevant details that are necessary for carrying them out.

The national leadership, for instance, may indicate it wants to concentrate on feeder roads, or water supplies, or whatever. This information is sent down the chain of command, but the operational decisions about where, how, when, and in some cases, whether, to start a project rest with the villagers. Because recommended projects often have a clear and immediate payoff, and because the government provides in many instances the materials for the projects, people appear generally willing to follow government suggestions.

Farm productivity change has served as the main engine for rural progress. The productivity growth resulted, in part, from government interventions such as agricultural research, extension services, and various development projects involving the creation of agricultural infrastructure. No less important were the unintended spillover effects from the rapidly growing industrial and urban sectors. From the industrial sector came high technologies and sophisticated farm machinery. Rapid urbanization has created increased demands for farm products, adding new incentives for farm households to attain a higher yield.

The Korean experience of economic development

Endowed with very little usable natural resources, either for domestic consumption or export, equipped with high density population, and having been unable to accumulate capital throughout the turbulent years since the late 19th century, the options left for the policy makers before the 1960s were quite limited. After liberation in 1945, Korea was almost a desert, with little industrial base, lacking well-trained managerial and engineering-technical manpower, and divided into North and South. Following political struggles, two separate governments were created, one each in the North and the South, by 1948. Three years of the Korean War since 1950 devastated the country not only economically but in terms of the national sense of unity that Korea had enjoyed for over a thousand years. Even more tragic was that merely a truce, not a peace treaty or peaceful unification, ended the battle, leaving the two parts of the divided nation suffering from tension.

It was the military regime that initiated the implementation of the first Five-Year Economic Development Plan beginning in 1962. The basic idea was to bring in foreign capital with attendant technology to build manufacturing industries which, in turn, would produce goods for export to earn foreign exchange needed to pay the foreign debt and help raise the living standards of the people. Thus, full-scale industrialization was pursued, beginning with light consumer goods, to be replaced by import substitute industries for a brief interval of time, and then eventually to build heavy chemical and capital goods industries for export, moving in the process from the labour-intensive to more capital-intensive high-tech industry (Kim 1986:9-11).

Since the launching of the first Five-Year Economic Development Plan, Korea has achieved rapid and sustained economic growth. Viewed from the supply side, Korea’s development strategy pursued extensive growth on the strength of its abundant labour force and allowed expansion of foreign capital investment. On the demand side, increased exports emerged as the most important factor in economic growth.

Thus, it should now be easier to understand the role of endogenous culture in achieving rapid economic growth in the past three decades (cf. Han 1991). There is no doubt that government has played a key role in planning, implementing and evaluating economic development programmes, but we have to realize that the general attitudes and values of people also have an important bearing in this connection. Fortunately, we have some data which can shed light on the attitudes and values of the Korean people which contributed to the development of the Korean economy (Hong 1980:290-99). The economic achievement of the past three decades in Korea was favourably viewed by intellectuals. And people in all sectors, regions, and walks of life responded positively to the government’s call for economic development. To organize the society for this job, the government decided to maintain a guiding hand in the affairs of the economy by pronouncing the policy of ‘guided capitalism’.

Considering the dearth of resources and the shortage of capital required to take off, the government assumed the primary responsibility of capital formation, resource allocation, project selection, and a whole array of other activities for the sake of efficiency. The voluntary sector was not to be an equal partner but was a target for mobilization. In this respect, the Korean people got used to the idea of government mobilization, such as the traditional conscription system, and other programmes of mobilization regularly employed by the military regime. Thus, in a way, the entire country was organized on the principle of a centralized authoritarian structure.

One should also note that the traditional authoritarian, hierarchical and collectivistic orientations had their own share in this area. Nevertheless, close analysis should reveal that the stereotypical conception of the role of the traditional element may need modification. It may be true that loyalty or commitment on the part of select managerial and supervisory personnel with distinct family or other more personalistic connections was generated by such orientations. Under the circumstances, the source of commitment and loyalty must be found in immediate and concrete incentives. However, because they were short of such resources, Korean organizations had to opt for a more authoritarian principle of mobilization than either the traditional familistic one or the modern rational one. No doubt, besides the nationalistic cause, some concrete incentives were offered, chiefly in the form of status attainment, if not of the plush material kind. Despite their poor salaries, civil servants were able to enjoy power and authority. Despite their low wages, managers and workers could now enjoy a new status of prestige and pride. Nonetheless, the fundamental principle of organization had to be that of centralized authoritarianism. The need for such a centralized authoritarian organizational principle may also be understood in light of the urgency of rapid growth, which in turn required social and political stability more than anything else.

Neither the rationality of Confucianism nor that of Christianity, but rather very unusual non-rational forces have provided the impetus for the development Korea has accomplished thus far. The kind of rationality basically needed for technological production, management, and all the other know-how, attitudes, and behavioural patterns have been acquired through acculturation processes, mainly by means of education, mass communication, and other channels of information.

Strong adaptability is one of the behavioural features of the Korean people. Among other things, religious syncretism — specially noted for Korean society — must have helped instill this tendency of adaptability. Syncretic orientation in adopting and indigenizing alien religions has been remarkable throughout the history of this country. It was true even during the Choson dynasty which, of course, was an extremely rigid regime in an ideological, religious respect, when persecution of other religions and ideas was often severe. This syncretism is one of the central elements of shamanistic indigenous folk religion in Korea.

The basic reasoning behind this contention would be that syncretism, being an open orientation by implication, could encourage attitudes that are open-minded about adopting certain new patterns. No doubt, the this-worldliness of the Korean people and their religious inclinations also might have had their own role in enhancing their adaptability, including syncretism. Now, however, even this adaptability in itself may or may not breed the kind of ‘rationality’ Weber noticed in the spirit of Western capitalism of modern times. Whether that particular type of rationality is a requisite for capitalist development may be debatable. But if it is, then the future of Korea’s capitalist development will largely depend on how successfully Koreans can utilize their adaptability to acquire that rationality to the extent that it is minimally required for that purpose. Our emphasis here has been that the major impetus thus far has been something non-rational rather than rational.


The socio-economic development of Korea certainly did not follow the development course of the West in many respects. Korea did not have what the West had, such as usable natural resources, capital accumulation, technological superiority, industrial base, the Western rationality, and so forth. But Korea had what the West did not have, such as its own development ethics, its use of human resources, its collaboration of government with business, etc. Certain unique Korean cultural values were utilized in the process of mobilization and organization needed to pursue the goal of socio-economic development in the context of a dialectical change consisting of twin processes of indigenous adaptive change and acculturation.

Thus Korea’s socio-economic development may be regarded, on the one hand, as a consequence of the combination of certain traditional cultural values, modern science and technology, and on the other as a consequence of the combination of non-rationality and rationality in terms of Western usage.

Some distinctive traits of non-rationality including authoritarianism, hierarchical orientation, formalistic ritualism, collectivism, connectionism, personalism, secularism, and this-worldliness have their roots in such traditional belief systems as Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism, and Christianity as well. These non-rational traits have played an unusually significant part in helping the country make good socio-economically. But these traditional belief systems are not the direct contributory factors in the effort to achieve socio-economic development in Korea. Rather, they have exerted a fundamental influence on the Koreans’ ideologies, values, world-view, personality, and principles of social organization, which in turn has contributed to the development of Korea.


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