Written by Mats van den Boogert
South Korea, the land of Samsung phones and television, the land of Hyundai and Kia cars. When we think of South Korea, we often think about a small country between the economic titans, such as China and Japan, that has emerged as a leading actor in technology development. South Korea is one of the most innovative countries in the world. In 2021, this Asian Tiger was titled the most technological innovative country in the world, according to Bloomberg’s annual innovation index. What people often don’t associate with South Korea are some of the country’s more conservative norms and values. The root of some of these ideas lies in the prominent role of Confucian thought in society, which focuses on the role of family, respect for age and authority, and hard work. However, drawbacks of Confucian influence have also become more apparent.
I had the pleasure and opportunity to spend one semester studying abroad at Hanyang University, one of the leading universities in the country, located in the capital Seoul. During my stay I was exposed to some of these more conservative norms and values, which was insightful to say the least.
The social food chain
Something one will quickly notice when living in South Korea is the hierarchical structure of society based on age and authority. Despite this structure being an intangible phenomenon it is very much real and unavoidable, since in any context you will be faced with it. As an example, this hierarchical structure is very much cemented in the Korean language. If one intends to master this language it is an absolute must to know these rules. For instance, when talking to someone who has authority over you or is of older age, you must address him/her using specific grammar structures and words. Situations in which one ought to use special grammar due to age discrepancy is not just reserved for talking to the elderly. It already applies when talking to someone who is just a few years older.
Additionally, Koreans don’t often address someone by their first or last names, unless in an informal context. Instead it is more common to address someone by their professional title, especially if they outrank you or are older than you. As a foreign exchange student I have noticed that Korean people show a lot of patience and understanding when foreigners misuse grammar and it never becomes an issue. However, when native speakers do not use the proper grammar and words it is considered highly offensive.
Besides the language use and other cultural etiquettes, such as waiting for those older than you to start eating before starting to eat yourself, the hierarchical structure also has an effect on academic life. Students’ immense respect for their professors is admirable on the one hand. On the other hand, it could hinder students’ engagement with lecture material and ability to think critically. Some students have said that they would refrain from bringing up a different perspective during class if this deviates too much from the professor’s perspective, afraid of showing disrespectful behavior. As one student put it:
“I think Korean students can be very timid and only a small number of students seem to ask questions or dispute the teacher’s words. I think this is because they are worried their questions or comments are wrong or will do harm to themselves or their classmates.”
Notorious social hierarchy in South Korea is captured in the use of the term gap-eul. At first, gap and eul referred to the contractual relation between an employer and employee, but more recently it is used to generally describe the unbalanced relations between those who hold authority and those who are subordinate.
In academia, gap-eul has a hold on the dynamics in and outside of the lecture room. Especially among graduate students this seems to be a problem. This is due to the close relationship between students and guiding professors during a graduate student’s dissertation or thesis writing process. According to a survey in 2019, conducted amongst 1900 students by the National human rights commission, nearly 26% of the graduate students reported to not have received proper financial compensation for research. Moreover, 10% have been subject to verbal abuse and more than 11% have under pressure done research on behalf of the guiding professor.
Additionally, numerous reports of sexual harassment and or assault by professors have been brought to the publics attention. At Kyung Hee University in Seoul, 24.3 percent of the 300+ graduate students that took the survey in 2021, stated to have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault by professors during their studies. These statistics unveil how South Korea’s highly praised education system is tainted by systematic abusive behaviour by professors or other superiors.
This does not mean that every professor in South Korea is some sort of classroom tyrant who abuses his/her power over students. I myself have had great experiences with professors, who have been nothing but wonderful. I have also had plenty of conversations with students who also had only positive experiences. However, the fact that the unbalanced power relations between students and professors is a recurring theme when asking students about it and while doing research, does show a worrying trend.
In Busan, the country’s second largest city, a bar does not allow professors to enter. The bar is located near Busan National University and its regular customers are university students. When people asked for an explanation the owner said:
“I’ve seen customers, many of whom are graduate students, stressing out from excessive workloads and abuse of power by professors. I did not want them to run into professors in charge of them here at my bar, where they come to relax and chill.”
As good as the owner’s intentions might have been, generalizing all professors and discriminating them is not the solution to the problem. Stronger and structural measures are needed to tackle this issue, which is partially rooted in cultural norms and values. It is the government that should step up and take action, not the local bar owner.
Professors hold a comfortable spot at the top of South Korea’s social food chain. Society expects people to respect their teachers and elders or anyone who is older or holds authority over them, which in itself is a great value. However, taking this to an extreme may not be the desired goal, as respect is not is not a one-way street, if one wants to earn respect one has to give respect.
Edited by Zuzanna Mietlińska, artwork by Teresa Valle