Family ties, educational background and regional affiliation are very important in South Korea. The political parties, jobs, and schools one gets into is often based less on merit than on connections. In the old days society was organized around family, kinship, and village units With urbanization and development, the village is no longer so important. In many cases today, relationships are based on which university one has attended and which company one works for. Kinship has traditionally been defined by paternalism. It is not clear whether this has its roots in Confucianism or traditional Korean culture. There are over 1,000 clans, each which includes scores of lineages.

In the Koryo and Yi dynasties, until it was outlawed in 1894, society was dived between the yangban (nobility) class, comprised manly of scholar-officials. They were large exempt from doing the manual labor performed by commoners. Confucianism and traditions divided society further along gender lines, with men doing the heavy outside work and women doing domestic chores.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “When Korea was still a preindustrial and agricultural society, predominant forms of social organization were family- and kinship-centered institutions such as lineages (minimum and maximum) and clans. Kin-based organizations are still present and considered to be important. However, recent industrialization, urbanization, and massive migration have resulted in movement away from lineage- and neighborhood-based social relations toward functionally based relations. Both formal and informal social organizations are formed in factories, shops, and offices. Branches of many multinational organizations are also present. Organizations based on school ties are now pivotal. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

Human Development Index (rank out of 189 countries): 22 (compared to 1 for Norway, 13 for the United States and 189 for Niger). The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income per capita indicators. A country scores higher HDI when the life expectancy at birth is longer, the education period is longer, and the income per capita is higher [Source: United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report, Wikipedia]

Social Homogeneity in Korea

Koreans put a strong emphasis on social harmony and group consensus. They have traditionally valued harmony, conformity, respect for elders, loyalty, honesty, industriousness, persistence, hard work, commitment to education, belief in order and stability, emphasis on obligations to the community rather just individual rights, and preference for consultation rather then open confrontation. These values are generally shared by other Asians and are drilled into children from nursery school onward.

Traditional Korean society was bound together by the two important concepts: hyangyak, an agreement on community responsibilities that everyone in a neighborhood or village was party to; and ture, a method of organizing a community so that everyone helped everyone else with agricultural chores such as planting, weeding, harvesting and winnowing to make sure all these tasks were done efficiently for everyone in the community. The ture even owned musical instruments to accompany the farmers when they do their work.

The younger generation has less reverence towards traditional Korean values than the older generation and the behavior and values of many young Koreans isn't all that different from young Westerners.


Koreans tend use the equivalent of "we," "our," and "us" in situations that people from most other countries use "I," "my," and "me." They often say "we Koreans" and "our country;" and talk about "our school" and "our company" even when talking to people from different schools and companies. A man will often introduce his spouse and family by saying "our wife and our family."

Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: “There is a word you hear a lot in Korea: woori. It means “we” or “us” or “we-ness,” but, as explained by Kihyoung Choi in his book “A Pedagogy of Spiraling,” it blurs into a collective “I.” Choi writes, “When one refers to one’s spouse, one does not say ‘my husband’ or ‘my wife’ but ‘our husband’ or ‘our wife.’ ” (The divorce rate in Korea has tripled in the last two decades.*) “It is very important to be part of the woori group, to be part of your coalition or clique,” Eugene Yun, a private-equity fund manager, told me. “This is the antithesis of individualism. If we go to a restaurant in a group, we’ll all order the same thing. If we go into a shop, we’ll often ask, ‘What is the most popular item?,’ and just purchase that. The feeling is, if you can look better, you should. Not to do so would be complacent and lazy and reflect badly on your group.” [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]

He went on, “It’s not that you’re trying to stand out and look good. It’s that you’re trying not to look bad.” He continued, “This is a very competitive society. In the old days, if your neighbor bought a new TV or new car you would need to buy a new TV or car. Now we all have these basic things, so the competition has moved up to comparing one’s looks, health, and spiritual things as well.”

Regional and Religious Differences in South Korea

Koreans divide themselves into five groups: 1) southeasterners and people from Pusan, regarded as direct, manly and boastful; 2) northwesterners, considered honest and aggressive; and 3) northeasterners, thought of as tough and resilient. 4) People from the southwest are regarded as clever, skilled compromisers but unreliable and politically disruptive; and 5) people from Seoul and the central part of Korea are considered gentle, narrow-minded, busy and selfish.

According to “Governments of the World”: “South Korea is an ethnically and linguistically homogenous society, although since the late 1980s, there has been increasing international migration. Still, in 2004, immigrants accounted for less than 1 percent of South Korea's population. Despite ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, there are strong cleavages in South Korean society. The strongest of these rifts derives from regional and provincial differences, and the most pronounced is between Kyongsang province in the southeast and South Cholla province. This cleavage is partly a result of overt discrimination and political favoritism, which was very strong prior to 1987. Into the twenty-first century, discrimination (in general) and regional disparities lessened, but South Korea continued to struggle from problems associated with regionalism. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities Thomson Gale, 2006]

“In addition to regional differences, South Korea is also divided along religious lines. Religious differences, however, have not been a major source of conflict. About 32 percent of South Koreans are Christian (mostly Presbyterian, followed by Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and Methodists), and close to 24 percent are Buddhist. There are also smaller numbers of Shamanists (those who practice traditional spirit worship), followers of Cheondogyo (an indigenous religion that combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Christianity), and Islam.

“Seoul is South Korea's capital and business center. Although it covers only 0.6 percent of the country's total area, its population of 10,276,968 (at the end of 2003) constituted almost a quarter of the national population.”

Confucianism and Traditional Korean Social Structure and Values

Many norms and mores of Korean society are rooted in the tenets of Confucianism, a system of ethics developed in China around 500 B.C. and is named after the Chinese scholar Confucius (551-479 B.C.). Confucianism emphasizes devotion and respect towards elders, parents, family and people in positions of authority. Many Koreans attribute their country's remarkable success in recent decades to these values. In modern Korean society, Confucianism is most noticeable in relations between people. The Five Relationships prescribe behavior between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, old and young, and between friends. If you fall outside any of these relationships, it is said, you do not effectively exist. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

The social values of contemporary South Korea reflect the synthesis and development of diverse influences, both indigenous and foreign. Probably the most important of these is the Neo-Confucian doctrine of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200), first introduced into Korea during the closing years of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392). During the Chosun Dynasty, Korean kings made the Neo-Confucian doctrine of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200) their state ideology. Although it was a foreign philosophy, Korean Neo-Confucian scholars, of whom the most important was Yi Hwang, also known as Yi T'oe-gye (1501-70), played a role in adapting Zhu Xi's teachings to Korean conditions. This was done without denying the cultural superiority of China as the homeland of civilized thought and forms of life. Yi Hwang had a great influence on later generations of Confucianists not only in Korea, but also in Japan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Throughout traditional Korean society, from the royal palace and central government offices in Seoul to the humblest household in the provinces, the themes of hierarchy and inequality were pervasive. Persons were expected to nurture "sincere" attitudes, which meant not so much expressing what one "really" felt as "reflecting on" or "clarifying" one's thoughts and feelings until they conformed to traditional norms. The ideal man or woman was one who controlled his or her passions or emotions in order to fulfill to the letter a host of exacting social obligations.

There was no concept of the rights of the individual. In the context of the wider society, a welldefined elite of scholar-officials versed in Neo-Confucian orthodoxy was legitimized in terms of the traditional ethical distinction between the educated "superior man" or "gentleman," who seeks righteousness, and the "small man," who seeks only profit. This theme was central in the writings of both Confucius and Mencius. Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism as political philosophies proposed a benevolent paternalism: the masses had no role in government, but the scholar-officials were supposed to look after them as fathers look after their children. In the Chosun Dynasty, status and power inequalities, defined precisely within a vertical hierarchy, were generally considered both natural and good. The hierarchy extended from the household relationships of fathers and children through the intermediary relationships of ruler and ruled within the kingdom, to Korea's subordinate status as a tributary of China.

Neo-Confucianism in Korea

Neo-Confucianism, the dominant value system of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), combines the social ethics of the classical Chinese philosophers Confucius (Kong Zi, 551-479 B.C.) and Mencius (Meng Zi, 372-289 B.C.) with Buddhist and Daoist metaphysics. One of Neo-Confucianism's basic ideas is that the institutions and practices of a properly ordered human community express the immutable principles or laws that govern the cosmos. Through correct social practice, as defined by Confucian sages and their commentators, individuals can achieve self-cultivation and a kind of spiritual unity with heaven (although this was rarely described in mystic or ecstatic terms). Neo-Confucianism defines formal social relations on all levels of society. Social relations are not conceived in terms of the happiness or satisfaction of the individuals involved, but in terms of the harmonious integration of individuals into a collective whole, which, like the properly cultivated individual, mirrors the harmony of the natural order. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Neo-Confucianism in Korea was becoming rigid and increasingly conservative by the mid-1500s. The practice of Neo-Confucianism emphasized hierarchy in human relations and self-control on the individual level. Society was defined in terms of the Five Relationships (o ryun in Korean; wu lun in Chinese) that had been formulated by classical Chinese thinkers, such as Mencius, and subsequently sanctified by the Neo-Confucian metaphysicians: "between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be righteousness; between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young there should be a proper order; and between friends there should be faithfulness." Only the last was a relationship between equals. The others were based on authority and subordination, including the first relationship, which involved not so much mutual love as the unquestioning subordination of the son to the will of his father.

In the context of wider society, a well-defined elite of scholar-officials versed in Neo-Confucian orthodoxy was legitimized in terms of the traditional ethical distinction between the educated "superior man" or "gentleman" and the "small man" who seeks only profit. This was a central theme in the writings of Confucius and Mencius. Confucianism as a political theory proposed a benevolent paternalism: the masses had no role in government, but the scholar-officials were supposed to look after them as fathers look after their children.

Just as the father commanded unquestioning obedience in the household and the scholar-official elite did so in the nation as a whole, there was also a hierarchy in international relations. China, the homeland of Neo-Confucianism and the most powerful nation in the region, was the center of Chosun Korea's cultural universe for most of the dynasty's duration.

Impact of Confucianism on Koreans

Even though South Korea seems very modern and secular and is very technologically advanced and Westernized, Confucianism remains very strong in the way people respect their elders, teachers and mentors, the way friends refer to each other as junior and senior, the way conservative morality endures and the way corporations and organizations have been structured.

Koreans often strike Westerners as not being very logical. One reason for this is that they have been brought up with the Korean form of Confucianism, which puts a strong emphasis on following teachers, superiors, family members and elders with unquestioned authority rather than thinking for themselves.

Koreans have traditionally relied on superiors to tell them what to do and thus have been reluctant to assert themselves. Mentors and teachers are honored, even revered. There is a deference to command authority. People often ask your age not because they are particularly nosey but because they want to know where you fit into the Confucian scheme and know how you fit in terms of being an older person or younger so they know how to address you. After decades of maintaining their Confucian values and strong work ethic, Koreans are now showing more of an interest in materialism, money and superficial success.

Korea, Confucian Authoritarianism and Democracy

Foreign observers have been impressed with the diversity of the Korean character as expressed in day-to-day human relations. There is, on one hand, the image of Koreans as self-controlled, deferential, and meticulous in the fulfillment of their social obligations; on the other hand is the Korean reputation for volatility and emotionalism, for being the "Irish of the East." The ecstasy and euphoria of shamanistic religious practices, one of Korea's most characteristic cultural expressions, contrasts sharply with the austere self-control of Confucian ancestor rituals. Although relatively minor themes in the history of Korean ethics and social thought, the concepts of equality and respect for individuals are not entirely lacking. The doctrines of Ch'ondogyo, an indigenous religion that originated in the nineteenth century and combines elements of Buddhism, Daoism, shamanism, Confucianism, and Catholicism, teach that every human "bears divinity" and that one must "treat man as god."

Western social and political values such as democracy, individualism, the equality of the sexes (also seen in Ch'ondogyo), and national self-determination were introduced by late nineteenth-century Korean reformers and by West European and North American missionaries, who had a profound effect upon the development of Korean education and political values. These concepts have played an increasingly prominent role in South Korean life in recent decades.

Although by no means democratic, the Confucian tradition itself contains anti-authoritarian themes. Mencius taught that the sovereign and his officials must concern themselves with the welfare of the people and that a king who misuses his power loses the right to rule — the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. In Korean as well as Chinese history, there were many Confucian statesmen who, often at the cost of their own lives, opposed the misuse of power by those in authority. The tradition of political protest in South Korea, particularly by university students, owes as much to this aspect of the Confucian tradition as it does to democratic and Marxist concepts imported from the West. Just as Korean historians idealize out-of-power "rustic literati" or sarim, who were said to pursue purely moral and academic studies and to disdain government service at various times during the Chosun period, so modern-day university students, claiming to be the "conscience of the nation," have opposed the bureaucratic and professional elite in government and private business.

Thus, to depict traditional Korean social values in terms of an authoritarian Confucian tradition is overly simplistic. A more comprehensive account of social values might describe them in terms of interacting dualities, a kind of yin-yang opposition and synthesis. There is the tension, for example, between selfcontrol and solemnity on the one hand, and almost explosive volatility on the other, at the level of individual behavior; between the duty-bound austerity of Confucian family life and ritualism, and the ecstasy and abandon of shamanistic rites; between the conservatism of agricultural villages and the looser social organization of fishing communities; between the orthodox concept of male supremacy and the reality of much "hidden" female power; between the "higher" rationalized, humanistic, or scientific culture imported from China, Japan, or the West, and much older indigenous or native cultural themes; between hierarchy and equality; and between slavish deference to authority and principled resistance.

Social Stratification, Divisions and Classes and Castes

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: During the Koryo and Yi dynasties, until it was outlawed in 1894, division of labor by class was pervasive: yangban (nobility), mainly the scholar-officials, were largely exempt from manual labor performed by commoners. Division of labor by gender was also prominent, strongly influenced by Confucian-oriented values: men were primarily responsible for outside labor as providers, whereas women performed domestic tasks. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Despite the existence of male preference in many jobs and occupational ranks, the gender gap is narrowing, especially for highly educated women in the cities. Domestic work, however, has continued to be the work of women. In the case of urban working women, their burden has become doubly onerous. In the rural villages an increasing number of women participate in agricultural work, even in the rainfall (nonirrigated) field, which was not the traditional pattern.

The traditional gentry (yangban ) status was formally abolished by the Kabo Reforms of 1894, but the legacy of the class system is seen in social psychological and behavioral patterns. In 1994, 60 percent of South Koreans regarded themselves as belonging to the middle class. The subjective perception of one's class position was closely correlated with one's level of educational attainment. Eighty-three percent of those with a college education perceived themselves as belonging to the middle class, compared with 41 percent of those with a primary school education. In general, industrialization and urbanization have contributed to a leveling of the nonkin hierarchy in social life, but the income gap between the working classes and the industrialist class as a new power elite has grown. Family background, education, occupation, and the general acceptance of a meritocracy are major social factors that contribute to the unequal distribution of wealth by class. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

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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