Few societies have changed as rapidly or as dramatically since the end of World War II as that of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). When the war ended in 1945, the great majority of the people living in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula were poor peasants. The Japanese colonial regime from 1910 to 1945 had promoted modernization of the economy and society, but this had a limited, and mainly negative, impact on most Koreans as its main intent was to serve Japan. The poverty and distress of the South Koreans were deepened by the Korean War of 1950-53 when numerous people died and cities and towns were devastated. During the next four decades, however, South Korea evolved into a dynamic, industrial society. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

By 1990 educational and public health standards were high, most people lived in urban areas, and a complex structure of social classes had emerged that resembled the social structures of developed Western countries or Japan. The country also was making substantial progress in its evolution from a military dictatorship similar to that of many Third World regimes to a democratic, pluralistic political system. In the mid-1950s, few observers could have imagined that Seoul, the country's capital, would emerge from the devastation of war to become one of the world's most vibrant metropolitan centers — rivaling Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles.

Colonial occupation, war, and the tragedy of national division fostered abrupt social changes. Rapid economic growth engendered profound changes in values and human relationships. Yet there also was continuity with the past. Confucian and Neo-Confucian ideas and institutions, which flourished during the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), continued to have an important impact in 1990. The Confucian influence was most evident in the tremendous value placed on education, a major factor in South Korea's economic progress. Equally evident was the persistence of hierarchical, often authoritarian, modes of human interaction that reflected Neo-Confucianism's emphasis on inequality.

The complex kinship structures of the past, sanctified by Confucianism, had eroded because of urbanization but did not disappear. In 1990 Koreans were more likely to live in nuclear families than their parents or grandparents, but old Confucian ideas of filial piety still were strong. At the same time, contemporary social values were influenced by traditional but non-Confucian Korean values, such as shamanism and Buddhism, and by ideas brought into the country from the West and Japan.

The population of the Korean Peninsula, sharing a common language, ethnic identity, and culture, was one of the world's most homogeneous. Although there were significant regional differences even within the relatively small land area of South Korea, neither the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) nor South Korea had significant non-Korean ethnic minorities. This homogeneity, and the sense of a shared historical experience that it promoted, gave the people of South Korea a strong sense of national purpose. However, the years of Japanese colonial rule, the division of the peninsula after World War II, the establishment of two antagonistic states in the north and south, and the profound changes in the economy and society caused by industrialization and urbanization since the 1950s led many South Koreans to search anew for their national identity and place in the world. Often, the concern for identity expressed itself as xenophobia, the creation of a "national mythology" that was given official or semiofficial sanction, or the search for the special and unique "essence" of Korean culture.

“Since 1945, exposure to Western influences has increased dramatically, bringing with it a corresponding evolution in lifestyles, thought, and behavior. Western-influenced attitudes and dress are now common throughout Seoul, but the traditional ideals still hold considerable sway, particularly in the countryside. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Traditional Korean Social System

A stratified social system characterized by a clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled endured for centuries Korea. Under the Silla Dynasty, society was rigidly organized into a hereditary caste system. The Koryo Dynasty, which succeeded Silla, instituted a system of social classes according to which the rest of the population was subordinate to an elite composed of scholar-officials. By passing the higher civil service examination and becoming a government official a commoner could become a member of the elite, but since examinations presupposed both the time and wealth for education, upward mobility was not the rule. This system continued during the Chosun Dynasty. The strength of the aristocratic tradition may have been one factor contributing to the relative weakness of the Korean monarchy, in which the king usually presided over a council of senior officials as primus inter pares, rather than governing as absolute ruler. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

During the Chosun Dynasty, family and lineage groups came to occupy tremendous importance. Because one's social and political status in society was largely determined by birth and lineage, it was only natural that a great deal of emphasis was placed on family. Each family maintained a genealogical table with meticulous care. Only male offspring could prolong the family and clan lines and theirs were the only names registered in the genealogical tables; therefore, the birth of a son was regarded as an occasion of great joy. The Confucian stress on the family reinforced the importance Koreans attached to the family.

The Confucian principle of Five Relationships governing social behavior became the norm of Korean society. Righteousness toward the sovereign, filial piety, deference to older and superior persons, and benevolence to the younger and inferior became inviolable rules of conduct. Transgressors of these rules were regarded as uncultured beings unfit to be members of society. Whether in the family or society at large, people in positions of authority or occupying superior status commanded respect.

Still another enduring feature of traditional society under the Chosun Dynasty was the dominance of the yangban class. The yangban not only held power but also controlled the national wealth in the form of land. The court permitted the yangban to collect revenues on the land as remuneration for their services. Because much commercial activity was related to tributary missions to China or to government procurements, the wealth of the merchants often was dependent upon the discretion of the yangban.

Finally, because under the Chosun Dynasty one could enter into the scholar-official elite by passing examinations based on Confucian writings and penmanship, the entire society stressed classical education. The arts of war were accorded a lesser status, even though the founders of both the Koryo and Chosun dynasties were generals and despite the fact that the country had suffered from numerous foreign invasions

Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) Society

Chosun dynasty society was set up according to a strict Chinese-Confucian model. Confucianism became the state philosophy, the sexes were strictly segregated, women had few rights, and a bureaucracy made up of civil servants who passed difficult exam ran the country. The king and queen were regarded as the mother and father of all Koreans.

In the Chosun Dynasty, four distinct social strata developed: the scholar-officials (or nobility), collectively referred to as the yangban; the chungin (literally, "middle people"), technicians and administrators subordinate to the yangban; the commoners or sangmin, a large group composed of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants; and the ch'mmin (despised, or base people, often slaves) at the bottom of society. To arrest social mobility and ensure stability, the government devised a system of personal tallies in order to identify people according to their status, and elites kept detailed genealogies, or chokpo. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Below the yangban, yet superior to the commoners, were the chungin, a small group of technical and administrative officials. This group included astronomers, physicians, interpreters, and career military officers. Local functionaries, who were members of an inferior hereditary class, were an important and frequently oppressive link between the yangban and the common people, and were often the de facto rulers of a local region.

The sangmin, or commoners, comprised about 75 percent of the total population. These farmers, craftsmen, and merchants bore the burden of taxation and were subject to military conscription. Farmers had higher prestige than merchants, but lived a hard life. Below the commoners, the ch'mmin performed what was considered vile or low-prestige work. They included servants and slaves in government offices and resthouses, jailkeepers and convicts, shamans, actors, female entertainers (kisaeng), professional mourners, shoemakers, executioners, and, for a time, Buddhist monks and nuns. Also included in the category were the paekchng who dealt with meat and the hides of animals; they were considered "unclean" and lived in segregated communities. Slaves were treated as chattel but could own property and even other slaves. Although slaves were numerous at the beginning of the Chosun Dynasty, their numbers had dwindled by the time slavery was officially abolished with the Kabo Reforms.


In the strictest sense of the term, yangban referred to government officials or officeholders who had passed the civil service examinations that tested knowledge of the Confucian classics and their Neo-Confucian interpreters. They were the Korean counterparts of the scholar-officials, or mandarins, of imperial China. The term yangban, first used during the Koryo Dynasty, means literally "two groups," that is, civil and military officials. Over the centuries, however, its usage became rather vague, so that the term can be said to have several overlapping meanings. Strictly speaking, a yangban lineage was one that consistently combined examination success with appointments to government office over a period of some generations.

A broader use of the term included within the yangban two other groups that could be considered associated with, but outside, the ruling elite. The first included those scholars who had passed the preliminary civil service examination and sometimes the higher examinations but failed to secure government appointment. In the late Chosun Dynasty, there were many more successful examination candidates than there were positions. The second included the relatives and descendants of government officials because formal yangban rank was hereditary. Even if these people were poor and did not themselves serve in the government, they were considered members of a "yangban family" and thus shared the aura of the elite so long as they retained Confucian culture and rituals.

In principle, however, the yangban were a meritocratic elite. They gained their positions through educational achievement. Although certain groups of persons (including artisans, merchants, shamans [mudang], slaves, and Buddhist monks) were prohibited from taking the higher civil service examinations, they formed only a small portion of the population. In theory, the examinations were open to the majority of people, who were farmers. In the early years of the Chosun Dynasty, some commoners may have been able to attain high positions by passing the examinations and advancing on sheer talent. Later, talent was a necessary but not a sufficient prerequisite for getting into the core elite because of the surplus of successful examinees. Influential family connections were virtually indispensable for obtaining high official positions. Moreover, special posts called "protection appointments" were inherited by descendants of the Chosun royal family and certain high officials. Despite the emphasis on educational merit, the yangban became in a very real sense a hereditary elite. Thus, when progressive officials enacted the 1984 Kabo Reforms, a program of social reforms, they found it necessary to abolish the social distinctions between yangban and commoners.

Yangban Mobility and Threats to the Yangban System

During their invasions in 1592 and 1597, the armies of the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi destroyed many genealogical records, making it difficult to determine who was and who was not a member of a yangban family. Also, as Japanese armies were approaching Seoul, slaves in the capital rose up and burned documentary evidence of their servitude. By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the old social distinctions were breaking down. During the early Chosun Dynasty, commoners did not have family names or class affiliations. However, they began to adopt names in order to avoid the stigma of low status. Counterfeit genealogies could frequently be purchased, and commoners sometimes attached their names to yangban genealogies to avoid military service taxes. Other late Chosun Dynasty social changes included the gradual shift of agricultural labor from slave status to contractual arrangements, and the emergence of "entrepreneurial farmers" — commoners who earned small surpluses through innovative agricultural techniques.

An interesting development in the social history of the Chosun Dynasty occurred after the government began to sell honorary patents of office to people who were not yangban to raise revenue following the dislocations of the Hideyoshi invasions. Wealthy commoners sometimes went beyond such status symbols to commission forged genealogies or to take on other trappings of yangban status. This form of social climbing was highly irritating to traditional yangban families of the types mentioned above. Probably even more common were former yangban families that had drifted down into genteel poverty and commoner status. Both developments show that the Chosun Dynasty class system was beginning to lose some of its rigidity on the eve of the momentous changes of the late nineteenth century.

Yangban serving as officials could enrich themselves because they were given royal grants of land and had many opportunities for graft; but unemployed scholars and local gentry often were poor, a kind of "twilight elite" that was both feared and yet often mocked in peasant entertainments. In his satirical Tale of a Yangban, the writer Pak Chi-won (1737-1805) describes the life of a yangban, however poor, as one of enforced idleness, exacerbated by the need to maintain appearances. A yangban had to study Confucian literature and pass at least the preliminary examinations. He was prohibited from engaging in manual labor or commerce and had to present an image of poise and self-control. A yangban could not, among other things, "poke and play with his chopsticks," "eat raw onions," or "puff hard on his pipe, pulling in his cheeks." Yet he exercised much arbitrary power in his own village.

Chosun Slaves

During the Chosun period, most Koreans were slaves (noye) or slave-like serfs (nobi) who toiled for greedy, land-owning Buddhist monks or feudalist noblemen. As late as the late 19th century half of Koreans were slaves that were bought, sold, given away and killed at the owners discretion. "Slavery in Korea was indeed a demeaning and degrading experience," the Korean historian Yu Hyong-won wrote, "stemming from the complete control masters could exercise over their slaves if they wished."

Slavery was an important institution in Koryo and Chosun society. Exactly how it worked is still not fully understood by scholars today. Slaves, of course, stood at the very bottom of the social hierarchy; the existence and perpetuation of this status was an aspect of the continuing importance of hereditary status.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The institution of Korean slavery was passed on from Koryo to Chosun and showed little sign of weakening by the seventeenth century. Indeed, though the “80 or 90 percent” that this text suggests as the proportion of slaves among the total population was probably an exaggeration, slaves were numerous and economically central in Korea in a way they were not in other East Asian countries, and despite significant differences from, for example, American slavery, pre-modern Korea has been considered a “slave society” along with ancient Greece and Rome, the antebellum U.S. South, the Caribbean during European colonization, and a few other historic instances. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University ^^^ ]

The scholar Yu Hyongwon (1622-1673) argued for reform of several Chosun economic institutions, including slavery. On abolishing slavery he wrote in the Pangye surok: “But if the government of a true moral king is put into practice, and he rectifies the various institutions of government and washes away all partiality and vulgarity, then it is clear that the law governing slavery would definitely have to be abolished....What I mean by abolishing it, indeed, does not mean a sudden and total abolition of presently existing slaves. Just order that slavery stop with the slaves that exit at the presenttime.” [Source: translated by James B. Palais, “Sources of Korean Tradition,” edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 159-161]

Inherited Slave Status in the Chosun Period

A passage from the Koryo called “Inheritance of Slave Status” goes: “In the past, our founding ancestor, setting down instructions to posterity on the question of inheritance, stated: “In general, the offspring of the lowest class (ch’onnyu) are of a differentstock. Be sure not to allow the people of the lowest class to become emancipated. If they are permitted to become free, later they will certainly get government positions and gradually work into important offices, where they will plot rebellions against the state. If this admonition is ignored, the dynasty will be endangered.” [Source: translated by Hugh H.W. Kang and Edward J. Shultz, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 327.

“Accordingly, the law of our country provides that only if there is no evidence of lowborn status for eight generations in one’s official household registration may one receive a position in the government. As a rule, in the lowborn class, if either the father or mother is low, then the offspring is low. Even if the original owner of a lowborn person frees him, allowing him to achieve commoner status, the descendants of that freed individual must return to low status. If the owner has no heirs, the descendants of his freed lowborn belong to his clan. This is because they do not want to allow lowborns to achieve permanent commoner status.

“Still there is fear that some may flee and escape their status, becoming commoners. Accordingly, even though we take preventive measures, many take advantage of the situation and become crafty. There is also fear that some, relying on power or merit, will dare to take the law into their own hands and plot rebellion against the state, but eventually they are destroyed. Although we know it is not easy to heed the founder’s admonition, we still fear there is no way to check all disloyal feelings.”

Modern Society Emerges in 19th Century Korea

The social strata of the Chosun Dynasty and the family system were sustained by a highly stable environment composed, for the most part, of rural communities. The Hermit Kingdom, as it was called by Westerners, had very little contact with the outside world even in the late nineteenth century. Rapid changes, however, occurred during the Japanese colonial period, which disrupted the centuries-old ways of life and caused considerable personal hardship. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

These changes were particularly disruptive in rural areas. Traditionally, all land belonged to the king and was granted by him to his subjects. Although specific tracts of land tended to remain within the same family from generation to generation (including communal land owned by clans and lineages), land occupancy, use, and ownership patterns were often ambiguous and varied from one part of the country to another. Land was not privately held.

In 1894 a program of social reforms, known as the Kabo Reforms, was initiated by pro-Japanese Korean officials. Yangban and commoners were made equal before the law, the old Confucian civil service examinations were abolished, and slavery and ch'ommin status was ended. Modern forms of government and administration, largely borrowed from Japan, were adopted. In the years before annexation, a self-strengthening movement and government reforms attempted to regain Korean control of the pace and direction of change. However, it was only following the Japanese annexation in 1910 that the rapid social transformation of Korea began.

Korean Society During the Japanese Period (1910-1945)

The Japanese officially took over Korea in 1910 and they had made their presence known before then. Between 1910 and 1920, the Japanese carried out a comprehensive land survey in order to place land ownership on a modern legal footing. Farmers who had tilled the same land for generations but could not prove ownership had their land confiscated. Such land ended up in the hands of the colonial government, to be sold to Japanese enterprises such as the Oriental Development Company or to Japanese immigrants.

As research by Edward Graegert has shown, however, the survey also helped to confirm, or in some cases even to improve, the position of some members of the existing Korean landlord class. Many were former yangban who cooperated with the Japanese. Those yangban who remained aloof from their country's new overlord often fell into poverty. The farmers themselves either became tenants or were forced to leave the land.

These policies forced many Koreans to emigrate overseas or to become tenant farmers during the depression of the 1930s. Still other Koreans fled to the hills to become "fire field," or slash-and-burn, farmers, living under extremely harsh and primitive conditions. By 1936 there were more than 1.5 million slash-and-burn farmers. Other former farmers moved to urban areas to work in factories.

The fortunes of the yangban elite were mixed. Some prospered under the Japanese as landlords or even entrepreneurs. Those yangban who remained aloof from their country's new overlords, however, often fell into poverty. A few Koreans educated in modern Japanese or foreign missionary schools formed the nucleus of a modern middle class.

The Japanese built railroads and highways — a logistic system- -and schools and hospitals. A modern system of administration was established to link the colonial economy more effectively with that of Japan. The new, modern sector required technically trained experts and fostered employment for Koreans as mid- and lower-level civil servants and technicians. Although the top positions were invariably occupied by Japanese, Koreans worked on the lower levels as secondary technical and administrative personnel. Thus, while the number of Korean high officials in the colonial administration increased from only 354 to 442 people between 1915 and 1942, the number of junior officials increased from 15,543 to 29,998 in the same period. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Japan's industrial development policies during the 1930s and 1940s, though concentrated in the northern half of the peninsula adjacent to Manchuria, created a new class of workers and lower-level industrial managers that played an important role in the industrial development of South Korea after 1945. During the 1930s and early 1940s, industrial development projects, especially in the border area between Korea and China, employed thousands of Koreans as workers and lower level industrial managers. All the top posts were held by Japanese; prewar and wartime industrialization nevertheless created new classes of workers and managers.

The great majority of Koreans suffered under Japanese rule. A large number of farmers were forced off their land after 1910; industrial workers and miners working for Japanese-owned firms were often treated little better than slaves. Under colonial agricultural policies, rice cultivation was maximized, although most rice was grown for consumption in Japan.

Nevertheless, development under Japanese colonial rule provided some foundation, however unintentionally, for South Korea's impressive post-1945 economic growth. A small group of Korean entrepreneurs emerged who fostered close ties with the colonial government, and Japanese business interests established family-held firms that were the precursors of South Korea's present-day chaebol, or business conglomerates. It is a tribute to their acumen that these entrepreneurs were able to survive and prosper in a colonial economy dominated overwhelmingly by Japanese capital.

Modernization of Korean Society in the 1950s and 60s

At the end of World War II, Korea's traditional social fabric, based on rural communities and stable social hierarchies, was tattered but not entirely destroyed. In South Korea, the traditional social system survived, although drastically altered by urbanization and economic development. In North Korea, an occupation by Soviet troops, the communist revolution, and the rule of Kim Il Sung, transformed the society.

Three developments after 1945 were particularly important for South Korea's social modernization. The first was the land reform carried out by United States and South Korean authorities between 1945 and 1950. The institution of private property was retained, but the American occupation authorities confiscated and redistributed all land held by the Japanese colonial government, Japanese companies, and individual Japanese colonists. The Korean government carried out a reform whereby Koreans with large landholdings were obliged to divest most of their land. A new class of independent, family proprietors was created. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The second development was the great influx from North Korea and other countries of repatriates and refugees. In the 1945-49 period, between 1.5 million and 2 million Koreans returned to South Korea from Japan, the northeast provinces of China, and other foreign countries. With the establishment of a communist state in North Korea, a large number of refugees fled to South Korea and were joined by many more during the Korean War. A conservative estimate of the total number of refugees from the north is 1.2 million. Most of the northerners settled in the cities — new recruits for the country's industrial labor force.

The third development was a direct result of the Korean War. Traditionally Koreans, like their Chinese and unlike their Japanese neighbors, considered the military to be a low-status occupation. Korea did not have its own armed forces during the colonial period, although some Koreans served in the Japanese military, especially after 1941, and a handful, such as former President Park Chung Hee, received officer's training. The North Korean invasion of June 1950 and the three years of fighting that followed cast the South Korean military establishment into the role of savior of the country. And since the coup d'état of May 1961 that established Park Chung Hee, the military establishment has held considerable political power. Roh Tae Woo, elected president in 1987, was a retired general with close connections to the military elite.

Universal military conscription of men has played an important role in South Korea's development, both in political socialization and in integrating a society divided by strong regional prejudices. It also has exposed the nation's young men to technical training and to a disciplined way of life.

During the three decades after Park's 1961 coup d'état, the goal of the military elite was to create a harmonious, disciplined society that is both technically advanced and economically efficient. Economic modernization, however, has brought social changes — especially in education and urbanization- -that have had a corrosive effect on the military's authoritarian view of society and have promoted the emergence of a more contentious, pluralistic society than many in the military have found desirable.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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