[OUTLOOK]Be Proud of Korea's Un-Confucian Youth

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[OUTLOOK]Be Proud of Korea's Un-Confucian Youth

Oh, horrors! A recent poll found that 51 percent of the students at the prestigious Korea University would prefer not to be Koreans if they were to be born again.

This shocking news follows a poll last month that ranked Korean young people last ?yes last! ?among 17 East Asian and Pacific nations in expressing respect for their elders.

What in the name of Confucius is wrong with Korea's youth?

Could it be that they are harbingers of a growing maturity in Korean society? Could it be that we should be proud of these seeming ingrates?

First, let's understand that most such polls are entirely unscientific, and the Korea University poll was even less scientific than most. But impressionistic surveys of this type can be suggestive, so long as we don't read too much into them.

The Korea University school newspaper asked 259 students whether they would prefer to be Koreans if given a second chance at life. Just over half said no.

Then it asked Korean students in France, Russia, Japan, Canada and China to put the same question to native students in those countries. Overwhelmingly, they liked being French, Russian, Japanese, Canadian and Chinese.

But what does it prove? Consider who asked the questions. The Korean students were polled by their school newspaper. The foreign students were asked in their own countries by a Korean. Might a Korea University student express more national pride to an inquiring Canadian than to the school paper? Might a French student have been more blase about being French if polled by another French student?

The poll about respect for elders is almost as useless. The samples were large ?more than 10,000 students in 17 countries. But the question asked only for lip service ?"Do you respect your elders?" ?not for any concrete evidence of respect, such as spending time with elders.

Three answers were possible ?"very much," "somewhat" and "not at all." "Very much" was the choice of 92 percent of the Vietnamese youth and heavy majorities elsewhere. Even in rambunctious Australia, famous for insouciance and cheek, 74 percent of the youngsters claim to be "very" respectful. Bully for them.

Only 13 percent of South Korean youth felt the same way. So what? What does it mean to respect your elders? Is it just saying so? Still, as I said, polls like this can yield moments of insight, if not scientific data.

Somewhat shocking was the fact that 20 percent of the South Koreans said they respect their elders "not at all." That's pretty harsh. Why do they feel that way?

Could there be a clue in the main reason Korea University students gave for not wanting to be Korean in a second life? It was political corruption. Could they be suggesting that their elders are unworthy of respect?

My experience living in several countries tells me that Koreans of the adult and senior generations are more than respectable ?downright admirable, in fact. The modern Korean society that these elders built out of a history of hardship and privation is a monumental achievement.

But there has been a lot of corner-cutting, rule-dodging and cronyism along the way. And because another of Korea's achievements is a free press, Korean youngsters are aware of social corruption in a way that the respectful children of Vietnam and China, whose societies are hardly more upright, are not.

With the idealism of youth, they disapprove, as they should. Perhaps the next Korean generation will address this problem.

That has been the pattern in many countries. A period of headlong, rules-be-damned development is followed by a period of popular moral outrage, of demands for (ideally) neutral laws and procedures to put all citizens on an equal footing. In the last 100 years the United States has been through the cycle several times, and American college students have had their patriotism tempered by knowledge of the rotten spots in their country's history. I wonder if the answers of American students to the two polls would have been much different from those of the Korean students.

This is the first time through the cycle for Korea; perhaps youth's disillusion has a sharper edge. And the students live within a long tradition of anti-government activism on Korean campuses. What that means is that Korean youth are not complacent, but aware and critical. How can that be anything but good?

So congratulations, Korean parents! In addition to education and security, you have given your kids a sense of right and wrong. They are not ingrates, they are your conscience. And in time, when they gain a little more wisdom, they will respect you for all the right reasons.


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The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Hal Piper

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