[KS] Inquiry from a New York Times columnist

Frank Hoffmann hoffmann at koreanstudies.com
Mon Jul 25 13:11:38 EDT 2016

Dear Young-Key:

The "wedding list" comparison is a great one, that signifies some major 
differences (with the US)--which, I would argue, have by now largely 

The traditions that we refer to are mostly from feudal society. But 
today, Korea is no feudal society. Then what does a modern capitalist 
society do about traditions? It starts to reflect on traditions. That 
reflection process, a process the inherit efficiency of a competitive, 
international capitalist market & society produces, is a complicated, 
multi-layered process. On the one hand, there is the primary task to 
keep up with the shining surface of what is supposed to be 
"unquestioned traditions" on the national or local level. On the other, 
these traditions now suddenly need to make sense IN A MODERN SOCIETY. 
Traditional foods, for example, now need to be "nutritious and 
healthy." And then there is also the question 'when' tradition starts, 
and what is included and what not (what is 'worth' to be called a 
tradition). In Korea now, and that is interesting in itself, tradition 
starts almost yesterday (with the Park Chung Hee era). What does that 
signify? Maybe that there is little left whatsoever from a more distant 
past that could fill this urge for cultural identification? Or maybe 
that 'cultural identification' -- national identity in the Korean case 
-- is limited to MODERN Korea? And because of the emphasis on the 
modern -- even in cases where 'the old' serves as a visual motif) -- 
even something like that disgustingly cheapish ethanol/water mix, 
called Soju, has now been declared to be "tradition" and is has become 
"the largest selling alcohol in the world" (as the Wikipedia knows), 
and we are then told it was "first distilled around the 13th century." 
Sure, sure... and corned beef too, and giving red underwear in any 

In short, though, what we see is a modern, capitalist society that 
reflects and then adjusts, and in large part also invents, its 
traditions, those from feudal times as well as those from the 1960s (by 
declaring them traditions).

It thus makes traditions integrated and fine-tuned "tools" of and for a 
modern market society. If you follow that thread, I have no doubt, you 
will find that the state and the big players in the industries shape 
and manipulate this tradition-building process in however way it 
integrates best and creates most market value through various 
campaigns, through referencing certain traditions in terms of 
consumption, and on and on. Just think of those hilarious "nation 
branding" strategies the Korean institutions have formally adopted in 
the past decade. What we deal with here is a redefinition of the term 


Frank Hoffmann

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