Examining South Korea’s Rise to Global Prominence: The Role of Collectivism and Nationalism
The way South Korea handled the COVID-19 pandemic has given the world a blueprint on how to effectively manage the health crisis. When the coronavirus started to wreak havoc and affected countries desperately sought for ways to battle the deadly contagion, this nation straddling the southern part of the Korean peninsula gave them hope. They were not disappointed. South Korea led the way and generously shared to the world what they have been doing to successfully contain the pathogen.
It was ironic that the most powerful countries in the world – the US, China, and some European nations – with all their wealth and advance technologies, were rendered helpless by the coronavirus especially during the early stages of the pandemic. That was the time when the world badly needed a leader to lead the fight against the deadly virus. South Korea courageously stepped up to the plate. Suddenly, the global spotlight focused on this nation and its people. Citizens of different countries from the different continents of the world seeking to restore tranquility back into their lives looked to the direction of the “land of the morning calm.”
The world is well aware of South Korea’s gradual rise to prominence. News about success spreads fast like a wildfire. It has been drawing more global attention amidst the current pandemic. This country’s economic success is well-documented. How it rebounded from the severity of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 to become one of the 15 top economies of the world today is by no means a small feat. How it has been dealing successfully with the coronavirus when the supposedly more powerful and more progressive nations continue to suffer from its onslaught is a fact that is hard to ignore. These achievements, altogether, have seemingly established South Korea as an emerging world leader.
How South Korea catapulted into its current lofty position in the global community is something to marvel at. It made many wonder how this nation survived despite being haunted by the ghosts of a bitter colonial past, ravaged by the destructive Korean war, hampered by the political turmoil of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and pestered almost endlessly by a belligerent neighbor in North Korea.
Perhaps, as important as learning the way the South Koreans successfully reined the coronavirus is understanding how the people of this nation emerged from the ashes of Japanese colonialism, the Korean war and the political uncertainties that followed, the Asian economic crisis, and the constant threats from north of the peninsula to become a prominent member of the community of nations that it is now. The essential question that must be answered is – “How did this nation, like the mythical phoenix, rise from the ashes?”
That question needs to be answered so the world will have a better understanding why the South Koreans are succeeding not only in containing the coronavirus but in their endeavors as a nation in general. Answering that question should not be construed as an effort to extol the virtues of these people but rather to determine what factors have contributed to their gradual rise to global prominence. The answers being sought would not only divulge their framework for success but also reveal more about their traits which will help other nationalities in fostering a better relationship with them.
Finding the answers to the said question would require more than just scrutinizing the political and economic policies implemented by the South Korean government. Not that it is inappropriate to attribute the success of a nation to the statutes and strategies formulated and executed by its leaders. But focusing on the said areas is like giving credit for the nation’s success only to the elected leaders forgetting about the ones who wrote their names (the leaders’) in the ballot, the ones who granted them the mandate to lead – the citizens.
When South Korea generously shared all the information they gathered and the systems they developed to battle the coronavirus, countries focused only on the protocols, methods, and whatever medical kits and equipment this nation provided. They credited South Korean authorities for a job well done. They forgot about one very important factor that made South Korea’s efforts to curb COVID-19 infections succeed – the cooperation of its citizens.
No matter how effective are the policies and guidelines the South Korean government would implement, they wouldn’t work without the cooperation of the people. No matter how great are the leaders of a country, it would be useless without the support of an unselfish citizenry willing to sacrifice for the collective good. There could be no stronger pillar for nation-building than the combination of good leadership and the collectivist mindset of its citizens.
The willingness of South Koreans to set aside personal motives for the best interest of the many is considered as one of their best traits. They are concerned with the welfare of their community as a whole. Theirs is a collectivist culture that make them think first of the general welfare over and above their personal interests. They put the collective good of their society over their individual rights.
As it has always been, the success of any national endeavor or even just simple community programs hinged on the willingness of the citizens to support their leaders and contribute whatever they could (and should) for the undertakings. Cooperation is very crucial most especially in dire situations such as during a pandemic. The only thing that was required of the South Koreans when the current health crisis was at its worst in this country was their cooperation. The world was surprised that despite the fact that the country was churning scary numbers of daily infections during the months of March and April (2020), it did not implement a “hard lockdown” the way other countries did. The citizens were asked to just strictly observe social distancing and not venture out of their homes unless it’s very necessary. Those things were not difficult for the South Koreans to do.
While citizens and their leaders in the Western world and other parts of the world were fiercely debating the efficiency of wearing face masks, the South Koreans religiously wore them not only to protect themselves but also in consideration of other people who might be infected in the event that they are just asymptomatic or already unknowingly carrying the virus. That’s the kind of mindset they have.
Wearing masks, maintaining personal hygiene, and social distancing are, for South Koreans, simple sacrifices. They made greater sacrifices in the past that would make following those health protocols set by their government pale in comparison and not really a big deal. Following such orders was nothing when compared to what the South Koreans did in early 1998 when they willingly donated their gold – wedding rings, jewelry, medals and trophies, gold luck keys and what have you – to save their economy that was then in trouble. More significant than the collective weight of the gold they donated and the corresponding monetary value was the willingness of the citizens of this nation to make personal sacrifices for their country’s sake.
That is more than just being collectivistic. That is another trait the South Koreans have that helped them gradually rise to global prominence. That’s the other “ism,” aside from “collectivism,” that has propelled their progress and development – “nationalism.”
It is not only the discomfort that wearing face masks creates and the loneliness that social distancing brings that they are willing to bear for the good of everybody. It is not only their material possession – gold – that they are willing to sacrifice for the sake of their country. Even their own lives and liberty. South Korea is enjoying a vibrant democracy now because of its citizens who bravely resisted for years one military junta after another. They did not cease fighting until the last vestiges of authoritarian rule were eliminated. Their martyrs sacrificed their lives and limbs to lay the democratic foundations of their society which became a fertile ground that nurtured their economic prosperity.
Undoubtedly, what allowed the South Koreans to overcome the trauma caused by the Japanese occupation and the Korean war was their strong sense of national pride. They did not allow those harrowing experiences to dampen their spirits as a nation and neither would they allow the ongoing COVID-19 crisis to hamper the progress and prosperity which they worked so hard to achieve.
South Korea’s brand of nationalism has been criticized for being more raced-based rather than state-based. But the performance of South Korea in the international arena is a clear indication that whatever doctrine of nationalism they have embraced is working for them as a nation.
Aside from their model of nationalism, critics have something to say also about collectivism in South Korea. They argued that this nation’s collectivistic culture is a hindrance to the productivity and creativity of their nationals.
Is that so?
Speaking of productivity – Apple’s competition for the title of top smartphone seller is Samsung. South Korea is one of the world’s leading exporters of, among other things, electrical and electronic machinery, equipment, and gadgets (including smartphones and computers).
What about creativity?
The Korean Wave (Hallyu), lest the world forget, is used in reference to the global popularity of South Korea’s cultural economy. The country exports not only electrical and electronics products but also pop culture – music, movies, and TV dramas.
So, how credible are the criticisms hurled against South Korean’s brand of collectivism and nationalism?
Here is the answer: South Korea is currently the 12th largest economy in the world – an indication that their versions of collectivism and nationalism are what exactly the South Koreans need to exorcise the demons of a bitter colonial past and the bloody Korean war and to overcome the political and economic crises that hit them. Their way of loving their country and putting the welfare of their society over personal interests is probably what led them to economic prosperity and why they are efficient in implementing measures to curb the spread of the dreaded coronavirus.
It’s hard to argue with success. Therefore, despite all the criticisms, the South Koreans should keep their collectivism and nationalism shine more brightly. They need to strengthen these traits but at the same time they should try to evaluate (and correct) if they have negative effects that may adversely affect them as a nation in the long run and their relationship with the rest of the world.
What should be considered as the two most important items in the list of products the South Koreans are exporting are not any of their electrical and electronics products… not their music and dramas… not even their much sought-after beauty products – but their brand of collectivism and nationalism. Citizens of any country can have them at no cost at all except that for anybody to acquire such traits they have to learn to be self-less – the way most South Koreans are. It’s about time that the world should realize that there is a virus deadlier than the COVID-19. Call it selfishness – putting personal interests over the common good.
- Ahn, Diana D., “Individualism and Collectivism in a Korean Population” (2011). Scripps Senior Theses. Paper 107. http://scholarship.claremont.ed u/scripps_theses/107
- Kim, Kihwan, “The Korean Financial Crisis: Causes, Response and Lesson s”, The Conference Paper on Lessons from Recent Global Financial Crises, The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and The Bank for International Sett lements, 1999.
- Korean Ethnic Nationalism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_ethnic_ nationalism
- Korean Wave. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_wave
- Pride of the People: South Korea and Korean Nationalism Seow Jing Yin Intern, ISIS Malaysia https:/isis.org.my/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/files
- South Korea – Hofstede Insights, https://www.hofstede-insights.com/coun