[KS] How unequal is South Korea, really?

Frank Hoffmann frank at koreaweb.ws
Mon Aug 28 20:34:25 EDT 2006

Dear All:

Dr. Bertrand Renaud's rejoinder to Paul Shepherd 
(thanks for posting this, Young-Key) raises also 
some questions about Korean Studies.

I think this is a highly interesting discussion 
because it touches on just so many important 
issues that go far beyond economics. Dr. Renaud, 
of course, has already expressed that in various 
ways in his posting.

Inequality, economic, social, sexual inequality, 
*if* perceived as such, has always been the motor 
for political movements. When Dr. Renaud states 
that "[t]he land distribution issue in Korea is a 
major social issue by Korean choice" he basically 
seems to say that it is mostly the perception of 
inequality that drives people into the streets, 
whatever the Gini, Pini, or Winimini. In a 
country like Korea such perception then 
legitimizes certain kinds of political actions. 
Violent protest such as street fights or 
squatting, for example, are widely accepted as 
legitimate tools of political protest in Korean 
culture. Not so in the U.S., but again quite so 
in most of Europe! Conflict solving strategies 
and cultures in general, both in private and 
public, are quite different in Korea and the U.S. 
What I wonder about, though, is how exactly 
people come to their perceptions of inequality -- 
no doubt this seems to be culture-specific, to a 
large degree at least. How otherwise can we 
explain that hardly anyone in the U.S. really 
cares about such amazing facts: "the top 
one-tenth of one percent [that's 1”, not 1% !] of 
the income distribution earned as much of the 
real increase in wage-and-salary income from 
1997-2001 as the bottom 50 percent of the 
country" (NBER newsletter, as quoted by Dr. 
Renaud). Tell that some first graders and show 
them some photos and they will be shocked. But 
something is happening between first and 10th 
grade. Something very different seems to happen 
in Korea between 1st and 10th grade.

In the late 60s and the 70s "interdisciplinary 
approaches" were very popular in the humanities. 
Personally, most such "interdisciplinary" works I 
had to read came across like cut & paste wisdom 
collections for Catholic youth groups. What 
really happened, however, is that Economics, Art 
History (not East Asian Art History), and many 
other fields -- not as much History, 
unfortunately -- incorporated methods from 
psychology and sociology into their disciplines. 
Economics or Art History, for example, does not 
need to be "interdisciplinary" therefore.

Now ... what about Korean Studies, I mean Western 
Korean Studies as we all know it? What is that? 
And who needs it? What for? (Same question for 
Sinology/Chinese Studies and Japanology/Japanese 
Studies.) Is Korean Studies just a collective 
term to name studies related to Korea/n from the 
"real" disciplines, both the humanities and the 
hard sciences? Or is it Samsung's and the Korean 
Overseas Information Service's international arm 
to propagate things Korean? Mianhamnida 
...mianhae, mianhae, I will never ever o it 
again, but this one time. Can Korean Studies, if 
it exists (it sure does in Europe) offer any 
answer to the inequality/culture complex that 
e.g. Economics as it exists as a discipline today 
cannot answer? If I am asking the wrong question, 
please let me know why.


Frank Hoffmann
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