The Future of Korea

An Interview with Political Scientist Lee Jae Bong

Online feature from KJ 60


Lee Jae-bong, born in 1955, studied political science at the University of Hawaii, Texas Tech University and Dongguk University in Seoul. Now a professor at Wonkwang University, Lee is well known as an expert on the history of anti-American movements in Korea, and his strong support of the Sunshine Policy. We met in the Gogoong Hotel in Seoul in early September 2003.

Kyoto Journal: If the countries of East Asia were a family — that is, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and of course we could also include the U.S. because of their military presence here — how would you analyze their relationship? 

Lee Jae-Bong: Actually the term “East Asia” was created by the United States in the 1940s and ‘50s for ideological reasons. Later came “Northeast Asia,” which included Russia and Mongolia. With the spread of Communist ideology the U.S. wanted to analyze this area within an ideological construct, focusing on Russia. That’s why they made “Northeast Asia” — Japan, China, Korea, plus Russia and Mongolia, which included both socialist and capitalist countries. But with the spread of capitalism in the ‘80s, the U.S. refigured the region with the term “Asia-Pacific” — which was Northeast Asia plus Australia and the U.S., or North America. In the era of “East Asia” or “Northeast Asia,” the U.S. was excluded. But with “Asia-Pacific,” the U.S. can be a member of the family. A long time ago China would have been the father. The direct son is Korea…and Japan, maybe a cousin, because Japan is an island country. The history of China and Korea was very close, but vertically, not horizontally. So yes, like father and son, or big brother and little brother. And Japan a cousin.

I see. Where would the U.S. fit in? 

The U.S. wasn’t in this group until 1945. Even now it’s not a family member, but perhaps a kind of step-father — there are no blood relations. Geographically and culturally it’s quite different, but the U.S. has power. 

Why did Confucianism take such a strong hold in Korea? 

Well, Confucianism originated in China several thousand years ago. Korean dynasties, from 1000 to 1400 CE, were dominated by Buddhism, but with the Yi dynasty in 1392, Confucianism became the dominant religion or culture. The basic sectors of society are what we call sa-nong-kong-sang. Sa means… scholarship maybe, or literature. And nong is agriculture; kong is industry, and sang means commerce. The industrial or commercial sectors were not so admired while the intellectuals were well respected. That was the influence of Confucianism, and still in Korea we respect professors, teachers, and not so much engineers, I think. 

What impact has there been on Korean culture, positive and negative, by the lengthy presence of the U.S. military in the country?

First of all materialism, and then individualism. And in individualism, “I come first.” Me first. It is focusing on “I,” but the collectivism of Confucianist culture is focusing on “we,” us. For instance, you say this is my friend, my school, my car, my home, my country, right? We don’t have this “my” — it is our country, our school, our teacher. And in the extreme, this is our wife. It doesn’t make sense. How can you share a spouse? But we say this is our wife, not my wife. That’s the core of collectivism. You say my country; I say our wife. Extremely different.

Individualism is an influence from the U.S. military’s presence?

Individualism, materialism. And sexual freedom.

Are there examples of an individualism that invigorates the country? How do you see the pluses and minuses?

OK. Individualism has both positive and negative aspects, but in my country its negative aspects are stronger. And this is particularly connected to selfishness in Korea. This is not individualism. Individualism is OK when it focuses on my freedom and rights. But more importantly, respect other people’s freedom and rights. That is the precondition. But here we can see not individualism, but just selfishness. People get confused. They don’t really understand individualism.

What do you think of young people in Korea? Do any of them have a proper sense of individualism or democracy?

Well, in our culture if you visit any Korean house you have to take your shoes off before going in, because in ancient times our culture was based on agriculture. Nowadays we make a lot of tractors; we can farm individually. But in the past the whole group went to the fields and we worked together. There was a kind of collectivism. And inside the house, when we were settled down, we took our shoes off. We cooked kimchi . It takes a long time to make it. But in Western cooking, you just fry and cook without seasoning. And then when you eat you put on some salt or pepper. But we don’t do that because the background is different. And in the past — even I had the same experience — we all slept together in one or two rooms… with three generations; you know, grandparents, parents, my brothers, sisters, all in one room. But with the developing of the economy, individualism was introduced. Now our housing structure is mostly three- or four-bedroom apartments with nuclear families. But in the past, ten, twenty family members had only a two- or three- bedroom house. So we shared. That’s collectivism, which focuses on harmony and togetherness.

When punishing a child in the U.S. that child is locked in his or her room, right? The child’s freedom or rights are restrained. To punish in Korea it’s — “Hey, get out of the house.” You are out of this group. 

So Korea’s culture is now a mixture of individualism and Confucianism?

Yes, exactly.

Another U.S. influence you mentioned in addition to individualism and materialism was sexual freedom… 

Well, materialism is related to sexual freedom. Today our divorce rate is very high. But in the past we couldn’t divorce, really. In Korean culture, a very important word is chong. It’s a kind of affection. In your culture, love is very important. But such love can happen and end on the first date. You can make love when you first meet, but in our culture, “affection” is more important. Even though a couple do not have love for each other, they can live with affection in marriage. This affection includes both love and dislike. You know arranged marriage — In my case, our first meeting was for arrangement; the second for engagement… and the third was my wedding ceremony. It’s quite possible in our culture.

What is the most striking thing about Korean young people today?

They have no interest in politics. In the past we needed democratic development, but there has now been so much development, in both the political and economic fields. When we were under a military dictatorship, we struggled against the government. And we worked hard for a better economy. And now the young do not feel that kind of interest. Up to the 1990s it was quite different. At that time, not a single day passed without a demonstration in the streets. In the 1990s the unification movement was a very popular in force. And now a handful of students are interested in this kind of movement. Most young people do not recognize the necessity: “Why do we have to have unification? … with our economic well-being, relative freedom, so what! Unification would be too complex…”

Assuming that the two Koreas will eventually be unified, what conditions or circumstances would be the best, the most positive so that all people, north and south, would benefit?

A unification policy has two conditions: First, is it really desirable? And second, is it really achievable? According to the South Korean view, unification has to be made capitalist, free, democratic, and with a free market. But in the North Korean view, unification should be made in the view of socialism… Socialism has to be maintained. So there is no realistic agreement, right? If South Korea insists upon a capitalistic system and at the same time North Korea insists on a socialist one, how can they both be combined? Is it desirable? Achievable? This is the reality.

So there is the idea of a federation. South Korea has suggested a “confederation,” like we see now with countries in the European Union. North Korea has been suggesting a “federation” since the 1960s.

Meaning the two Koreas are connected but still separate?

That is confederation. Confederation means one people but two countries, two governments, two systems. And federation is one people, one country, but two systems. So, federation means one country as seen from the outside, right? Particularly militarily and diplomatically, but inside are two systems, like two local governments, capitalism in the south and socialism in the north. Eventually the two could be united, but in the very distant future…

So in your opinion a confederation or a federation is more realistic than unification?

Exactly. It’s very reasonable.

Aren’t there unification activists who want one unified Korea? 

Well, there are a lot of different persons. Unification activists include leftists and rightists. But most civil movement activists want realism. Without war. Or without the collapse of any one side.

 How do you feel that the U.S. and China view this situation? 

The United States was for unification in the 1960s through 1980s, but only through capitalism. The U.S. has presently prepared statements that see permanent division.

But how will they deal with a nuclear North Korea? What do you think of this problem?

OK. The Korean War did not end legally. There was an armistice in 1953, more than 50 years ago. We didn’t sign a peace treaty. Do you know why? A non-aggression treaty is very simple, right? We will not attack you, and you don’t attack us. North Korea has wanted a non-aggression pact for a long time. South Korea and the U.S. didn’t want and couldn’t accept one. It’s very ironic, since it is the “warlike” North Korea who wants a non-aggression from the “democratic and peaceful” South Korea and U.S.. Nuclear weapons are a negotiating chip with America.


In the past, U.S. troops were in part stationed in Korea to check Russia, but in the post-Cold War era, they are there to check China. If a non-aggression pact is reached, U.S. troops have no reason to stay here. The U.S. is wary of Chinese influence on the Korean peninsula. In 20 or 30 years, it is expected that China will be equal to the U.S. economically. And perhaps based on that economic projection, it will compete militarily. So that’s why the U.S. does not want to end this system.

You’ve been to North Korea several times….

A couple of times. One was very early in 1998, before the summit meeting in 2000. At the summit many people could visit Pyongyang. I had done that two years before. And then I went there last year. So, I could see a difference in the five years between 1998 and 2003. When I first visited Pyongyang I could see many [hungry] people in the streets lying down, even in the city. And on the streets or even highway…I went to Nuyhung mountain…it’s a couple of hours outside of Pyongyang city. On the highway between Pyongyang and Nuyhung, I saw less than ten cars in two hours, and most of those were military trucks. Last year I could not see those people on the street lying down, nobody. And I could see that people’s faces were more vigorous. And I also made another visit to Nuyhung Mountain, and this time I could not continue counting the many cars. They’ve had China’s support. They had recorded minus growth for tens year up to I think 1999. Now they are recording real, positive growth.

I want you to answer this question as a political scientist: on one hand national identities tie a people together, it’s very important, an identity. On the other hand, sometimes the national identity makes people oppose other countries. Our world becomes fragmented… Is there a way to get beyond this way of thinking nationalistically?… To survive in our world without war or violence, don’t we need to create a different kind of identity that is not only nationalistic but somehow larger?

Well, it’s a problem. I don’t like nationalism. World scholars accept that there are about 200 different countries in the world and 2,000 different kinds of “nations.” And there are only about 20 single countries that are fairly mono-racial. So, the ratio is 20 to 200 and 200 to 2,000. In each case, one to ten. This means that, on average, one country consists of ten “nations.” That’s why there were a lot of conflicts when the Soviet Union collapsed. But Korea is different. We have never been aggressive, and we were colonized by Japan for 35 years. We were attacked several hundred times in the past. So our nationalism is not aggressive. We can classify nationalism in two categories: aggressive and non-aggressive. The aggressive strain is like that of Hitler’s Germany. Korea has never expressed an aggressive nationalism. We couldn’t and we didn’t… we were just passive and defenseless, because we were attacked or colonized. And even now we are surrounded by powerful countries, including the U.S., Russia, China, and Japan. Korea is really small, right? That’s why so far I could not find negative aspects to Korean nationalism. But nowadays I can… There are many foreign workers here… from Vietnam, China, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. They are discriminated against by Korean people. Perhaps because we ourselves were discriminated against by Japanese and Americans, we now discriminate against third-world people in Korea. 

But with the world now in a situation where much more information is flowing between countries, much more contact, is there any melting of national boundaries in people’s minds? Do you think that’s happening? 

Not in Korea, because we have a specific geographic background. In the past we were called “the hermit kingdom.” And even now we cannot get out so easily. For instance, in 2000, when I made a visit to Northern Europe, I could travel freely without passport and visa from Sweden to Finland, Norway, Denmark… but here in East Asia I cannot travel without visa and passport to a single country, including Japan. The hardest country to enter is North Korea. But to go to China it takes two weeks to get a single visa still now. In Japan, it’s not very difficult, but not easy. Why in East Asia, as East Asians, can’t we travel freely in any country?…Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Japan. That’s our geopolitical situation. 

Do you think global communication might change the future? Can you foresee, ten years from now, not needing to have a visa for China? The Chinese not needing one to go to Japan… Do you think that countries want to move in that direction? 

I think and hope so. For instance, I see my actual neighbors very rarely, once a week or once a month. But I communicate with friends in Japan or the United States everyday, twice a day, three times a day. See? That’s globalization.

Robert Kowalczyk: In the West, as you probably well know, there is a grave concern that there are no longer politicians. There are only businessmen, and the corporations really are ruling the political scene. Now I am wondering in that context, how do the chaebol (corporations) operate in Korea? Do they still have tremendous power?

Korea is different now. In the past chaebol had very close relations with the dictatorship, the military governments. But now it has been mostly disconnected. Chaebol cannot exert such critical influence as they did in the past.

 RK: Do they still have influence over the opposition party?

Oh, yes…because they were close. They were linked together…like the way the military-industrial complex in the U.S. has close relations with the Republican Party… the opposition party has close relations with the chaebol because they support pure capitalism, the free market, no government control…but President Roh is different… So in this situation now, and in the immediate future, chaebol do not have as much influence as we saw in the past.

South Korea and North Korea have been separated for 50 years. Are they developing into different cultures? 

Oh yes. For instance, in the North, collectivism is still more influential than individualism… And they have developed their own dialect. But in South Korea many people cannot talk without using some English, particularly American English, for example Korean people say “handy phone.” So in South Korea you see billboards in English. Even though they are written in Korean, they are pronounced as English. North Koreans and South Koreans will have difficult communication.

How should nations deal with the past? I’m talking about the Japanese colonization of Korea. That’s still a sore point…

Sure. A real and sincere apology from Japan. At least at a government level.

In terms of concepts, qualities, or ideals, what can Korean culture offer global culture that cannot be found in other cultures? 

Parent-child relationship.

Can you describe that?

I’m here in Korea alone, right? Why? For my children. You perhaps cannot understand. I love my wife very much, and my wife misses me very much. We always telephone and email, two or three times a day. I love living in Korea and teaching in Korea. I do not want to live in the U.S., so I have to be here and earn money. Our children are getting a good education there. That’s why we are separated. For the kids. And there are a lot of these kinds of families within Korea and the U.S.. So the sacrifice of Korean parents is unimaginable. Such family relationships have sacrifice and devotion. Education is very, very important in Korea. 

I taught my students in the U.S. about this child-parent relationship. I received everything from my parents, so I have to return something to them. That’s why I married — because when I was 33, when I left Korea to study in America my parents asked me to get married first, before going to America. I said to my parents, “I’m sorry, but I have to study first, and after finishing studying I will marry.” That is not filial. You see? Then when I was in America, my parents asked me again — and I decided, OK, I will do something for them. I’m the youngest son, and they are getting older. So, I thought I have to marry even though I do not want to. I met my wife in December, winter break; the engagement was made in March; and the wedding ceremony was held in May, our third meeting. Then later, all of my students in the U.S. would ask me, “Are you still married?” And I said, “Yes, I am, very harmoniously and very happily.” That is part of the Korean Confucianism. That is affection. Even though we are separated far apart, we can live together with affection, not love.

Westerners value love, but we value affection more.

And at the first class I said it this way. I introduced myself: “My name is Jae Bong Lee, but Jae Bong is very difficult to recall. So you can call me Jae. But now we are learning abut East Asian Confucianism. In Korea, a student cannot call a professor by name. It’s very rude, unthinkable. You cannot even call me Mr. Lee. In Confucian culture not even ‘Professor Lee’ is appropriate, just ‘Professor’ or kyoshyo . But now I’m in the United States, and I am a little Americanized, so just call me ‘Jae.’” 

I gave my students a midterm exam. Some tried to kind of cheat. I said, “Well, I cannot punish you. I am not a full professor here. You may be punished by the president if I make a report, but I do not want to do that. You studied Confucianism. In Confucianism what do you have to be afraid of? — punishment by heaven. Anybody who tries to do something wrong will be punished, not by me or the president, but by heaven. So do whatever you want.” That’s Confucian culture. But in your culture, law is most important. Everything is ruled by law. But here the human relationship is more important, and affection.

In the U.S., even if we are very close privately, when I do something unlawful, say I violate a traffic rule, and you are a policeman, I’ll get a ticket, even from you. We are very close friends privately, but officially you are a police officer, and I’m a traffic violator. But in Korea, no! It’s “Hey, how can you do that?” The personal relationship is more important than the official one. So there is much “corruption” in your view, because rules and laws are very important in an individualist society, American culture, or Western culture. But here it’s tradition, human relations. If people cannot do something through official channels, then a bribe will be introduced. “Hey, can you do that for me? I’ll treat you to lunch or some give you some money.” Then, very fast…

RK: Do you think it’s a weak part of the culture?

Just a different way of dealing with reality…

RK: But, you know, not only in Korea but also in Japan and in China, this corruption is a problem everywhere. Do you feel ashamed about that, or shy? Or do you just say, “It’s part of our culture”?

No, because that is a part of our culture and tradition. But nowadays the influence of American politics and culture, individualism, is stronger than collectivism in the South. So now it can be considered as shameful.

What is your greatest hope and your greatest fear? 

Without doubt, for hope I can immediately say peace and unification. For fear, war. Particularly since the 1990s, the possibility of war has increased through the actions of the U.S. in 1994 and 1998. In the past, the possibility of war was due to the actions of North Korea. And now we are looking at Afghanistan and Iraq, and maybe Iran or North Korea. But I think that in view of all Plan 5027…


5027. That’s the U.S. war plan for the Korean peninsula. They have revised it every two years since the 1970s. So now, 5027-00 is for 2000, 02 for 2002-2004. In the beginning, the U.S. planned just to defend South Korea from North Korean attacks. But since 1990, they have introduced offensive concepts. And now they are very striking, surprising — that they can attack North Korea without consultation with the South Korean government. That’s from 2002, without consulting South Korea — they can attack Pyongyang.

They can attack Pyongyang without consultation?

Exactly. So in 1998, Plan 5027-98 stated that if there was a sign of North Korean troop advancement, then the U.S. could attack North Korea preemptively. So the strategy began to change in 1998: we can strike first… And then in 2002, after 9/11…The U.S. has to be ready to attack Pyongyang without consultation with the South Korean government.

RK: This information was available from where? Openly available? How do you know… 

Oh, yes, you can read that in an English version. I can give you the home page. 

What was the government’s reaction when this information was disclosed?

I wrote about this just this month, and so far I do not have any government reaction. But many movement activists were shocked by my writings. The South Korean government, or NSC Department, looks closely at me because I regularly bring up these issues in my writings. And I have criticized President Roh as a puppet of Bush, particularly when he sent troops to Iraq. Let’s see how they will react to my writing today.

RK: Of course the South Korean government itself would never make this public.

Well, sure.

Does this mean there is an escalation of aggressiveness in the U.S. and also in North Korea? In your overall view, is it becoming more aggressive over the years?

At this point. Especially during the Bush Administration. In the Clinton administration there was always agreement between the U.S. and North Korea. Well, we cannot say for sure, but if Gore had been elected, it likely would have been quite different than now. Normalization between the U.S. and North Korea could even have been made at the end of the Clinton administration.

What aspect of the Korean character has sustained Korea in the past and will sustain it in the future?

Well, we are a single nation. We are the same blood. That’s why I said “we.” We focus on “we” not “I.” That’s collectivism…we are the same blood. That is true nationalism. Why do we need unification? Because we are the same nation. Even though we have different ideals, different systems, we have to be united because we have the same blood. Since we are relatively open to the outside and North Korea is closed, North Koreans have a stronger feeling about this. 

RK: Do you think the North Koreans have looked at you as a somewhat different or strange Korean? 

I do not know exactly… But at least about the outlook, I can feel it — we are all brothers, brethren.

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